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Part I: Past

*

The wooden floors were cold beneath AJ's feet when he stumbled out of bed on the Thursday That Everything Happened. He ignored the minor discomfort and made his way to the kitchen, eyes still mostly closed. The jug of orange juice that he pulled out of the fridge was almost to his mouth when he saw the note on the kitchen table. He set the jug down, smiling, expecting Sarah to have pulled yet another one of her psychic moments, the note to say nothing more harmful than "get a glass, dipshit."

What it said instead was, "I'm sorry, baby. I love you more than anything. I'm sorry it's not enough."

The words took a moment to penetrate and then he was off, running, screaming Sarah's name. He checked their bathroom first, but she wasn't there, nor in the guest bathroom that she sometimes commandeered for beauty days, nor in any of the rooms on the second floor, the living room or the dining room. AJ was well past frantic by the time he found her, sprawled on a tanning chair, almost hidden by the condensed steam of the Jacuzzi room.

There was an empty bottle of Valium next to the chair, and AJ thought he should have noticed her having something like that around. They never kept anything in the house that was stronger -- or more addictive -- than Ibuprofen.

She was still warm to his touch, although whether that was because she was still alive or because she had been in the Jacuzzi room all morning, AJ was having a hard time determining. He whispered, "Okay, okay. I'm gonna. Stay here," and ran to the phone on the deck, calling 911. He ran back when he was done, tucking her up in his arms, trying not to think about how much heavier she was now that she wasn't helping him, laughing at his attempts to carry her over the threshold, licking his ear mischievously.

"Stay with me baby." He made his way to the front door, straining to hear the sirens. "Stay with me, and I promise, I'll make things better. We will, together. I promise, it’s gonna be fine, things are gonna be fine. You're the best thing I've ever had. I love you so much."

The ambulance arrived and AJ ran outside, carrying her over the threshold a second time, going the wrong way. The ground wasn't as cold as the wooden floors had been, as cold as she was in his arms. They took her from him, laid her out on a stretcher.

"Sir, how long ago did she stop breathing?" One of the paramedics was doing CPR, kissing her in ways that only AJ had the right to. That was what the ring on his finger meant, he knew that much. "Sir? How long?"

"I don’t know. I don't know, I couldn't tell. She was in the hot tub room, it was hard to tell."

It hadn't felt as long as AJ thought was appropriate before the paramedic who had been feeding his wife oxygen sat up and shook his head. Another paramedic looked at his watch. "Time of death, 8:02 am, Pacific Standard Time."

"That's it? You're not gonna take her to the hospital, pump her stomach, do fucking something?" AJ was screaming, making a scene on his front lawn and he couldn't have cared less, wanted to make a bigger scene, hit one of the paramedics, maybe.

"Sir, I'm sorry, your wife, sir, she was probably already dead when we arrived. There was nothing we could do. I'm sorry."

AJ looked at his dead wife, pale and seemingly wide awake in the bare light of LA's morning sun. He whispered, "So what do I do now?" and didn't have the energy to tell the paramedic, who began talking about funeral arrangements and such, that AJ hadn't been talking to him.

*

AJ wasn't as close to Kevin as he was to Howie or Nick, but Kevin was the one who had always fished him out of trouble. It made sense, therefore, in AJ's mind, that if he could just get hold of Kevin, tell Kevin what had gone wrong, that Kevin would fix things.

AJ asked to use the phone outside the morgue. They had made him sign so many papers, his fingers were numb, and he wished he had his cell phone so that he could just hit memory ten and be connected. The paramedics had made him put on pants and a shirt and sandals, but nobody had thought to tell him to bring his phone.

The phone rang twice before Kevin's voice, even lower than usual with sleep, answered, "This had better be good." Kevin was always the first one up while they were on tour and the last one awake while they were on break.

"I need you to come get me, please, Kevin. Please come get me." AJ had come in the ambulance, the paramedics being less than keen on the idea of allowing him to drive.

"Whoa, Aje, where are you?" There was a soft, "go back to sleep, baby, it's okay," as Kevin left the bed.

"St. Teresa's. By the morgue."

"AJ-"

"Please, Kevin," AJ bit his lip and pretended he was crying from the physical pain. "Please, I'll explain in the car, just come get me."

"Do you want me to stay on the phone with you?" There was the purring of an engine behind Kevin's question.

AJ shook his head, even though it would go unseen. "I'm on the hospital's phone. I'll see you when you get here." AJ hung up the phone and walked outside to wait at the curb.

*

At the first stoplight, AJ explained slowly, "I found Sarah in the Jacuzzi room. Her and an empty bottle of Valium. They said…they said she was already dead when they got there. That's what they told me. After they- Well, that's what they said."

Kevin made an unplanned left turn, ignoring the honks and fingers it earned him. "I'm gonna take you to Nick's, okay?"

AJ was the only one who had a house in LA, but they were recording at a local studio, so all of the Boys were either renting or subletting. Nick's place was closest to the hospital.

"Okay."

Kevin was so used to fighting with AJ about what was best for the younger man that it took a second before he realized that he didn't need to gently persuade AJ that home wasn't the best place for him right then.

"But if I don't go back there now, how will I ever?" AJ stared straight out the front window. "When you get bitten by a dog, you know, you have to pet that dog again, like, immediately, or you'll be afraid of dogs, forever. I read that somewhere."

"We'll get you a new house if we need to, Aje. Try not to worry about it right now."

"You can’t fix things this time," AJ said softly, "can you?"

Kevin debated playing dumb for a second before he answered, every bit as softly. "I can’t fix her anymore, babe. But you're still under warranty."

They stopped at a light and Kevin reached over, gently pulling the passenger seat seatbelt across AJ's torso and plugging it in.

*

Kevin didn’t leave when they got to Nick's house, which AJ wanted to thank him for. Instead AJ curled up in Nick's messy bed without asking and laid there, covers pulled up to his ears, eyes wide open.

People came in and out. Nick asked hesitantly if AJ needed more blankets and then fussily fixed up the ones already covering him, petting AJ's head softly and not saying anything else. Kristin came in and made him drink a glass of water, compassionate and yet intractable, and AJ knew Kevin had sent her in because she wouldn't cave, not like the other guys. Brian came in and kissed his forehead and told him he loved him and that he would be right outside the door if AJ needed anything. Kevin checked on him every hour or so, just to make sure he was still there, still breathing, being a better friend than AJ had been as a husband.

Howie came and stayed. He didn't touch AJ, or say anything, just stared out of Nick's window, down at the 'courtyard' that had been cultivated in the center of the apartment complex. AJ was glad he was there and couldn’t find the words to say 'thank you' anymore than he had been able to with Kevin.

Kristin came back eventually, this time with water and toast. AJ chewed slowly, willing his body to digest everything properly. Howie walked over and kissed Kristin on the cheek before sitting back down where he had been, going back to his bird watching. AJ finished the 'meal,' and gave into the feeling of being protected. He allowed himself to recognize it -- even if he couldn't feel he deserved it -- and fell asleep.

*

AJ wasn't sure if the time Howie woke him up and put him in the shower was the first time he had been woken up since falling asleep, or one of many. AJ didn't really want to get up, but there also didn't seem to be much of a reason to fight. The water was already running when they got to the bathroom, not too hot and not too cold. Howie stepped in with him, like it was something he did every day, washing his fully-grown best friend. Howie was careful not to let shampoo drip into AJ's eyes.

Howie shut off the water and bundled AJ into a towel, ushering him back into the bedroom. There was a suit lying out. It was his favorite one, black pinstripe, built from the ground up just for him. "Do we have to do this now?" AJ's voice sounded odd in his own ears.

"Yeah, baby, we do." Howie slipped one of AJ's arms through a sleeve of the white Oxford that went underneath the jacket. He buttoned the cuff.

"I didn't make any arrangements." AJ allowed Howie to do the same to his other arm.

"No, Kevin took care of it."

"Private, right?" AJ knew there was more than a hint of panic to that question but he couldn't bring himself to care. "Private?"

"Just family. Yours and hers. Some friends; Tessa and her husband, and Liz." Liz and Tessa were Sarah's closest friends.

Howie crouched down on the floor, holding a pant leg open for AJ to step into. AJ did so compliantly. "Are they mad at me?"

"Who, Aje?" Howie opened up the other leg.

"Liz and Tessa. Sarah's mom."

Howie brought the pants up the length of AJ's legs, tucked in the white shirt, zipped and buckled the pants shut. "AJ, you did what you could for so long-"

"Not long enough." AJ's right fist clenched convulsively.

"You couldn't be there every second, Aje, none of us can do that for anyone." Howie coaxed AJ into his jacket, much as he had with the shirt.

"No, but I should have made her happy enough. Happy enough not to need me every second."

"You know it doesn't work like that." Howie's hands deftly straightened AJ's collar, his thumb brushing gently against AJ's neck.

"I should have noticed the Valium."

"Baby," Howie pulled AJ into a hug. "Stop with the 'shoulds.' There's no such thing. You did what you could."

AJ's reply was mumbled against Howie's shoulder, but it sounded suspiciously like, "Wasn't enough."

*

AJ and Sarah belonged to the only Friends congregation in Southern LA because the Sunday they had decided to try it out on a whim, nobody had gawked at AJ when he had walked in the door or at any time thereafter. AJ being a lapsed Catholic, and Sarah having been safely of the new age spiritual persuasion most of her life, neither of them were looking for much more than a place to go and sit with their thoughts waiting for something -- the Spirit or otherwise -- to move them, so the fit had ended up being perfect, if odd.

The friends Sarah had made through the congregation, the ones that Kevin had found in her personal address book, were at the funeral. They hugged AJ and made him tell them that he'd be at the service on Sunday and he mumbled something that sounded affirmative even if he doubted he would. He didn't know if he could sit with his thoughts now. Anna, one of the elders, who had adopted Sarah and AJ as if they were her own children nearly on sight, gave the eulogy.

AJ knew it was Anna's bit of civil disobedience. The branch of the Society that they attended was a small, unassuming meeting house about thirty minutes south of the heart of the city, with a fairly liberal congregation, given that most the members went back to jobs in fast-paced, high-paying careers after the service every week and couldn’t be bothered to be hypocritical about living simple lives. Still, violence against the self was violence of a sort and AJ knew the most important mandate in the Quaker faith. He had been paying attention. Sarah's friends -- Anna -- may have been willing to come to his aid with forgiveness in their hearts for her, but what Sarah had done was still wrong to them.

Still, Anna's voice was as strong as Nick's was when he was singing. It told Sarah's friends and family what they already knew, that, "Sarah was contradiction after contradiction, all bound up in one person, one soul, and nobody who knew her doubted, for a minute, that all of those contradictions made sense inside of her. She saw the world as gray and made it shine silver for everyone else."

AJ listened without thinking.

*

AJ had met her at a party, he couldn't remember which one, he thought it might have been after an awards show. She had been on the arm of some producer, flashing pearly whites that gleamed almost as much as the diamonds that graced her neck.

AJ had been handling the producer, enough alcohol in his system to not really mind that the guy was an asshole. Someone else had come over, tapped the producer on his shoulder, practically led him away and AJ had been surprised, when he had looked up from the retreating back of the man, that his trophy girlfriend was still standing there. "You not gonna follow?"

She had shrugged, "I don’t think it’s getting me anywhere."

AJ had frowned at that.

"Nuh uh, McLean, don’t give me that. You knew what I was doing here with him the minute you laid eyes on the two of us. He wants my body, I want a contract, simple equation." Sarah had slid her hand down her hip, casually straightening the fabric of her dress.

"I don't usually get to hear people admit to it."

Sarah had smiled, fewer teeth visible this time, "You're pretty smashed. I give you a seventy percent chance of remembering this come morning."

"If that's true, you could waltz outta here with me and our secret would be safe with you, come morning."

Sarah's eyes had flashed with something before she closed them, blinking seductively and laughing all at once. "Oh no, I'm easy, but sure as fuck not cheap. No label, no screw."

AJ had given her a look of disdain. "Didn't do your research very well, did you? We have a label."

Sarah had returned his look, raised by a bit of casual amusement. "No, honey, what you have is something you can talk about on polite morning talk shows. I want the real deal, Geffen, Mercury, you catch my drift."

AJ, who had forgotten what it felt like to have anyone other than the guys tell him the truth about anything, had surprised himself by enjoying the sensation. "Fair enough. How about this, then -- you don’t think you're getting anywhere with your current John, right?"

The nod of Sarah's head had been reluctantly accepting.

"Let me take you out for a drink tonight, and you can move yourself out tomorrow. Start sniffing for gold elsewhere."

Sarah had pursed her lips briefly. "I don't drink. Fucks with my inhibitions."

AJ, having still been at the point where he could tell when he'd had too much, smiled wryly at that. "Coffee then. I'll even pitch in for a shot of chocolate."

Sarah hadn't been the most beautiful woman he had ever met or talked with or even slept with, but when she had looked at him, carefully assessing his offer, defensive and subtly edgy and still somehow attractive, he had known he would do whatever it took to make her fall in love with him. "Well, I suppose if you're gonna pull out the red carpet like that, I might as well have some caffeine to speed along the packing process."

AJ had offered up his arm, mentally conjuring red carpets in their immediate path.

*

Howie made AJ walk away from the grave, made him stop watching the slow process of dirt being piled back into a recently dug hole in the ground. AJ resisted, wanting to make sure there was a mound on top at the very end. The mound would mean she was really in there, taking up space. He knew it was just her body, but he was desperate enough to hold onto to what he could.

Sarah's mom was in the car. She was crying. AJ held out his hand to take hers. She accepted and AJ, for his part, nearly cried with relief. He wasn't at the point where he could cry about anything else.

There wasn't a reception, for which AJ was glad. They dropped Sarah's mom off where she was staying. They were alone in the car when Howie admitted, "We're not sure if it's best to keep making you go places or to ask you what you want."

AJ crossed his arms over his chest as though he were cold. "I don't want to go to the house."

Howie nodded. "We thought you might want to stay with Denise."

"I want…" AJ shook his head, breathing in a tightly controlled manner. "I want to wake up from all of this, D."

Howie, who had always known when there was nothing to say, stayed silent.

"Does Nick not want me anymore?" AJ's voice was small, smaller than it had ever been, even when he was twelve and got turned down at auditions for being too geeky or too dark-skinned.

"We all want you, baby. We'd fight over you if we didn’t think it would make things worse."

"I think there are enough pieces of me to go around."

Howie twisted around and requested that the driver take them to Nick's, listing off the address by rote. AJ tried to smile, but his mouth was evidently as broken as the rest of him.

*

She had called him, unexpectedly, when she had gotten kicked out of one of her producer's apartments without much notice and wasn't feeling all that excited at the prospect of spending all night alone at a motel. "Take me out, McLean," she had ordered.

AJ had obeyed.

Sarah had sucked at bowling and AJ had taken pity on her by the third frame, plucking the bumpers out of their hiding spot and setting them in place. He had bought her a burger, fries and a milkshake and not asked exactly how she lived in between climbing-the-ladder.

He had dropped her off at the Days Inn slightly before four in the morning, and she had kissed his cheek and told him, "You're not so fucking bad, for a member of the male species."

AJ had immediately recognized this as a compliment of the highest order from Sarah.

*

Brian and Leighanne took over Nick's kitchen and made comfort foods: macaroni dripping with four kinds of cheese, and strawberry milkshakes. AJ took a couple of bites of the former, three or four sips of the latter, before giving up and asking for a glass of water. Nick handed him one and nobody tried to push him into eating more.

He watched TV for several hours without paying attention to a single thing that was going on. He was mildly convinced that Nick had switched channels a few times in the middle of things without AJ's having noticed.

He tried sleeping, at first by himself, then wrapped around Nick, who didn't complain, just threw his arm protectively over AJ and held the smaller man close. Eventually, AJ moved back to the den, turning the TV on mute and lying down on the couch, letting the eerie tones of night-time infomercials wash over his closed eyes.

In the morning, when Kevin let himself into the apartment, he walked over and turned the TV off before kneeling beside the couch and asking softly, "You get any sleep?" AJ opened his eyes and didn't say a word.

*

She had shown up at his door two days before the Boys had been scheduled to leave on tour. He had let her in, but been honest, "This really isn't a good time. I haven't packed."

Sarah had set the small duffel she'd been carrying down beside her. "I could help you with that."

AJ had scrubbed at his eyes. "You wanna drink?"

"I don't drink." Sarah had glanced at her watch surreptitiously.

"It's eleven in the fucking morning and if you're gonna be self-righteous about it, you can get your ass out of my house." AJ had poured himself more of the whiskey than he'd originally set out to.

"Look, McLean. AJ. I need somewhere to stay. Just a couple of days, until I can…figure out my next step." Her eyes had been empty when she had offered, "I can, um. Pay."

AJ had responded viciously, needing someone else to feel as torn apart as he had, "If that was true you'd be at a hotel right now."

"No, I mean-" Sarah had licked her lips, eyes unsure beneath their glaze of sexual promise.

AJ had known what she had meant. The whiskey had become heavy suddenly, though, sitting in his stomach. "I don’t want that."

"Oh, come on." Sarah had rolled her eyes. "You've fucking offered before."

"It's your prerogative," AJ had stated slowly, wanting to be sure that his point was clear, "if you want to whore yourself out for everyone from a third-rate studio exec to the Easter bunny. But you won't do it with me. I don't pay for sex. Not like that at least."

"AJ," Sarah's voice had wavered and she had pressed her hands to her stomach as though she would be sick, "I really. I really need somewhere to stay. I don't have anything right now."

AJ had gotten up and left the room and when he came back she had been sitting on the floor in the spot she had been standing, staring blankly forward. He had sunk down on the carpet next to her and taken her hand, placing a key in it. "I'm leaving in a day and a half. Call me when you get settled in wherever you're going and I'll tell you how to get the key back to me. You can stay as long as you like, just don’t trash things."

Sarah's fingers had closed tightly over the key. "Thank you."

AJ had gotten up to pour himself another drink.

*

Every couple of days, AJ would surface enough from the haze he was in to ask pertinent questions, such as, "Who's been doing my laundry?" or "Are we still booked for studio time?" Whoever was near him would give him an appropriate answer, and AJ would nod, or say thanks, and go back to reminding himself to do little things, like put his right foot in front of his left when walking forward.

After nearly a week of being at Nick's house, AJ crept into bed with Nick late at night. Nick didn't even wake up, used to it even before AJ's unexpected cohabitation. The guys all used each other when they just needed someone to cuddle up to in the middle of the night while on tour. AJ spoke his name, "Nick," loudly and Nick woke, not being much of a heavy sleeper.

"What's wrong?" Nick had one eye open and focused on AJ.

"I have to move."

"We know, Aje, we've all talked about it. We're gonna take care of it." Nick snuggled up to AJ, resting his face in AJ's neck. "C'mon, I'll talk about this with you in the morning, just get some sleep."

AJ waited for the sure sign of Nick's slowed breathing to slip out of the larger man's loose hold. AJ knew Nick kept his car keys by the door as a matter of habit so that he wouldn't lose them somewhere in his apartment. Nick was forever setting things down and forgetting where he had put them. AJ swiped the keys and took the elevator down to the building's parking garage.

There were still cars on the road, even at nearly three in the morning, but there wasn't traffic, per se, and it only took AJ twenty minutes to get where he was going. Nick kept the keys to each of the other guy's houses or apartments in his car, so AJ rooted around a bit in the glove compartment before finding the key to his house. He got out of the car, locked it manually with a satisfying 'BEEP,' and walked up the way to his doorway.

It was hot in the house, and AJ realized that one of the guys must have come by and turned off the air conditioning. The stillness was asphyxiating. AJ walked with a purpose towards the thermostat, carefully setting the numbers down several degrees when he reached it. Having accomplished his goal, AJ leaned against the wall, the house swirling around him. Using the wall as a support, AJ made his way to the kitchen, the nearest room with a phone, and punched in memory two.

Howie answered the phone near immediately, and it struck AJ how panicked the guys must be, how many eggshells they must feel surrounded him. "Hello? Is everything okay?"

"Howie, calm down. Hey, breathe. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

"AJ." Howie said it on an exhalation. "Are you at home? The ID screen is showing your home number."

"Yeah." AJ's back slid down the wall and he sat on the warm kitchen tiles. "Can you come be with me? I don't want to be here alone."

"Sit tight. I'll be right there." Howie hung up.

AJ hit the "off" button on the phone and drew his knees up tighter, following Howie's instructions to the letter.

*

She had called him when the guys had gotten back in the States. He had been exhausted and desperate for a drink, but for some reason that he could not have explained to himself, glad that she had called. "Hey."

"Hey." She had laughed a little, incongruously. "Look, I just wanted to thank you for saving my worthless ass. I thought you'd wanna know that I got a job."

AJ had tried to decide how much of himself he was willing to put into this conversation. "Oh yeah?"

"Pretty much just grunt work, but it's for DreamWorks, and the paycheck isn't embarrassing, or anything, so…"

AJ had decided he was willing to put forth a surprising amount of himself, into both the conversation and the developing friendship. "See, your ass isn't so worthless after all."

"Sweet talker. Listen, I'm leasing a place, I move in tomorrow, so you gotta tell me what to do with your key."

AJ had deliberated for a second or two, before telling her to, "Keep it."

"Funny. Seriously, how do I get it back to you?"

"I'm being serious, Sarah. Keep the key. In case of emergencies, or whatever."

"You barely know me, McLean. A few bowling dates and an evening of take-out Chinese after getting thrown out of my latest paramour's habitation does not a friendship make."

AJ had been amused. "It's as good a start as any. Look, I like you. You're fucked up, but I really don’t know that many people who aren't, so I'm not gonna count it against you. And you're honest and fun to be around, and the list of people that I know with those attributes is drastically smaller than the previous one. I'm taking a chance here. If you rob me blind, I'll live out the rest of my days mentally scarred and unable to trust a single member of the human race outside of myself. Just know that, okay?"

Sarah had laughed again, deeper and fuller than the slight chuckle at the beginning of the conversation, "Alright, McLean, alright. I'll keep your key."

"How sweet of you."

"Yeah, well, I'm very sweet."

"I'll just bet."

*

"AJ?" Howie's voice inquired, not loudly, from the front hallway.

"Kitchen."

There was barely any noise as Howie made his way to the kitchen and when he got there, AJ saw that Howie was wearing his Pluto slippers. Howie looked down at where AJ was staring. "Oh. They were the only things I could find."

Howie sat down across from AJ, resting his back against a free-standing counter and stretching his legs out in front of him. Pluto's ears flopped around a bit before settling. "I called Nick and told him where you were."

AJ made designs by sweeping his fingers across the highly waxed, ceramic floor tiles. "I've forgotten what living with someone other than her is like."

AJ pressed his hand into the tiles firmly, holding it there, waiting to pick it up and see if there was an imprint. There was, the moisture from his hand leaving a trail that disappeared quickly when unprotected by AJ's skin. "You remember what I told people when I stopped living in Florida after rehab?"

Howie had taken off the slippers, too hot in the not-yet-cooled house, and was now playing with Pluto's nose on one of them. "That it held too many memories."

"Tell me then, D. Do I run away from LA this time? I'm running low on places to flee to."

Howie set Pluto down beside him. "Is there somewhere you want to go?"

"Somewhere where nobody and nothing will think to look for me." AJ said slowly, the thoughts forming themselves almost at the same time as the words. "Idaho. Or Saskatchewan, maybe."

Howie leaned his head back for a minute before straightening it again. "Would Kevin's place do?"

AJ frowned at that. "Huh?"

"The one in the Appalachians."

AJ tried to remember anything that might have been mentioned to him about this. "Kevin has a place in the Appalachians?"

"Officially, no. It's not even in his name, he had Kristin buy it under her maiden name. It's so hidden away that even other people who live in that area of the mountains have a hard time knowing whether anyone is occupying it or not."

"Does everyone else know about this?"

Howie shook his head. "I'm not even sure Brian knows. I know because Kev offered it to me as a place to go whenever I need to grieve for Caro."

AJ's "oh" was implicit. "I don’t know if it's really my best idea, going somewhere remote, right now."

"It's something to think about."

AJ reached out and took one of the Plutos, lying down with his head on the slipper as a cushion. Howie watched as AJ fell asleep, his body rising and sinking against the slowly cooling tiles.

*

"So where exactly the fuck are you, McLean?" Sarah hadn't ever been much for 'hello' in a phone conversation, which AJ was beginning to find sexy, much to his chagrin.

AJ had looked around his bus and out the window for anything that might give him a clue. "In the middle of a huge fuck-off field. With a scarecrow. Midwest? I think we were in Connecticut last night, though, so that wouldn't make much sense."

"I got promoted."

AJ had been surprised. "Already? It's been like, what, three weeks?"

"I didn't say I managed it the old-fashioned way." Sarah had drawn out the last three words.

"Oh." AJ had grinned. "I dunno, I'd say that's pretty old-fashioned, wouldn't you?"

Sarah had made an amused sound. "Yeah, I guess."

AJ had opened two cabinets below the sink looking for his stash of rum. "You get vacation on this job?"

"Mm, why?"

AJ had poured the rum into a mug, not stopping until it was more than half-way full. "Wanna come out and see me?"

"Only if it's an all-expenses paid vacation. I have to make rent." Sarah had sounded the tiniest bit wistful.

"I think I can afford to pick up the tab. I'll email you the tour dates, you pick someplace you've always wanted to go and tell me when the concert is and where to book the tickets and hotel for."

"Um, look, AJ-"

"You could have gotten that promotion without sleeping your way into it." AJ had hung up the phone before either of them could say anything else.

*

AJ woke up sore but less exhausted than he had felt since Sarah's death. He heard noise coming from above him and looked over to the kitchen table, where Kevin was sitting, whispering quietly with Howie and Nick, munching on a bagel. Nick noticed AJ's open eyes first and greeted him with, "'Mornin', sleepyhead."

AJ got up from the floor slowly, stretching as he went, trying to work out some of the kinks. Howie winced in sympathy. "I would have moved you, but I thought you needed the sleep more."

AJ came over and joined them at the table. "Probably."

"Hungry?" Kevin asked solicitously.

AJ wasn't, but he picked one half a plain bagel out of the mix and reached for the butter. "Thanks."

Howie got up and poured AJ a glass of water, setting it in front of him. AJ thanked him by taking several sips. "Did somebody call Brian?"

"He'll be here," Kevin reported. "Leigh had a check up."

AJ nodded. Leighanne was in her third month of pregnancy, and not yet starting to show. She would though, which meant they would have to be handling press releases about that soon, too. AJ was glad, in a way, it meant that the reporters that the other four guys were fending off for him would leave him alone. Plus, he had a feeling Brian was just waiting for it to be necessary to tell everyone so that Leighanne wouldn't feel she'd had her privacy intruded upon. Brian was more than eager to tell the world. "Where's Kris?"

Kevin mumbled, "She wasn't feeling well when I left this morning, said she'd catch up."

Nick scrunched up his face. "You left Kris alone and sick? That's not really like you."

"It's, uh," Kevin grabbed onto the table with his hands, as if unsure what exactly to do with them, "it's. Here's the thing. I wanted to wait, until we could…be really happy about this, or I would have told you sooner. And I know that it's kind of bad timing with the hubbub about Leighanne coming up so soon, but I figure if we work it right it'll be like when we got married right on top of each other."

AJ rubbed at his temples and glanced around to make sure that Howie and Nick looked as confused as he felt. "Kevin. Sentences, please."

"Kris and I are having a baby." Kevin's eyes were a brilliant shade of green as he made the announcement and AJ hated himself for envying that happiness.

Howie grinned. "Do you and Brian have some kind of, like, genetically encoded timing thing?"

"It's not entirely impossible, but I think it probably has more to do with the fact that Kris and Leigh were both discussing the idea with each other at the same time that Brian and I were."

AJ swallowed air rapidly and forced himself not to think about the way Sarah would bring up having a baby, her eyes narrowing as she doubted her ability to be a good mother and lighting up again as she extolled her faith in the fact that AJ would be a fantastic father. AJ leaned over in his seat and kissed Kevin's forehead. "That's great Kev. The baby's gonna be so beautiful," he said, and got up to wander out of the kitchen.

*

They had had sex for the first time when she had visited him on tour. She had sucked him off in the car on the way back to the hotel and he had made it up to her when they had gotten into his room, taking his own damn time going down on her. Once the edge had been taken off, they had spent most of the night having fun, taking things slowly, exploring. When Sarah had tried anything else, AJ had pinned her to the bed gently, and met her eyes with his, "We're not doing this because I paid for your plane ticket out here. We're doing this because you're beautiful and I'm turned on and I hope you are too."

He had waited until she had nodded -- frightened acceptance flooding her eyes -- to continue with what he had been doing.

*

Kevin found AJ in the backyard, his legs dangling over the side of the pool. Before Kevin could apologize for things that AJ didn't want him apologizing for, AJ told him, "I think we should put me back in a rehab center. As, like, a preventative measure."

Kevin reached down to undo the Velcro on his sandals and roll up his pants legs. He sat down next to AJ and put his feet in the water, swishing them around and watching the patterns of the change in current. "You wanna drink?"

"Desperately," AJ admitted. "More than anything in the world."

"I'm not saying this to be mean, Aje, but being in rehab isn't gonna bring her back."

"I know." AJ kicked his legs up, sending a small spray of water in several directions. "But I don't want you guys to have to pick up the pieces again. I don't want all your happy things to be tainted by me."

"You wanna get away from us, then?" Kevin's legs went still.

"No! Fuck no. Kev. Of course not."

"Because you've got to know that I don't care that you're not jumping up and down about the baby. I don't care. I know you're as happy for me as you can be."

"I was jealous," AJ growled, "I wanted-"

"I don't care, AJ." Kevin placed soft emphasis on 'care.'

"You should." AJ's words were short, bitten off, distinct.

Kevin shrugged, "I like being contrary, what can I say?"

*

She had called him a week after she had left him to go back to her life. He had been hung over and had answered with a sharp, unpleased, "What?"

Not giving an inch, she had snapped back, "You drink too fucking much, McLean."

"Fuck off," had been the most clever thing he could formulate.

"I will, worry not. Right after I tell you that I had a great time this weekend." Her voice had lost none of its edge, but had developed a tinge of vulnerability.

AJ, cranky as he had been, hadn't possessed a chance of staying bitchy. "Me too, Sar. I was glad you came."

"I really. I think you should drink less."

AJ had smiled bitterly, he should have known better than to think she would back off. "I really think you should mind your own business."

"I passed up a…an opportunity. I was, uh, up for a promotion."

"Oh?" AJ had fought to keep his tone casual. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I think, maybe, that I want your business to be my business."

AJ had clenched the phone tightly. "And you think that just because you want something it's going to happen?"

Sarah had snorted. "You think I would be among the tribe of Hollywood whores if I thought that? No. I don't. I just…think that for some unknown reason you've taken a liking to me. And I'm not above taking advantage of that. Not when I like you too."

"I'm never around." AJ had argued weakly.

"I know, but you gotta admit, we make the best time of it when you are." Sarah had replied with a surprising amount of cheer and truth.

"I don't have to admit anything."

"No." Sarah's voice had been almost inaudible. "I suppose you don't, at that."

"But I think I will."

"Yeah?"

"I wouldn't mind having my business be yours."

"Okay." Sarah had paused for a second. "Okay. You drink too much."

*

"Where are you going?"

Howie jumped a little and turned around. "You scared the shit outta me."

"Sorry." AJ gestured to the keys in Howie's hands. "Where're you going?"

"Grocery store. You need food."

AJ was glad he had someone around to think of these things for him. "Can I go with?"

"If there's something you want, I could pick it up for you."

AJ drew back a little. "You don’t want my company?" He worked on making it sound light, arrogant, but he knew the best he was probably accomplishing was pissed off rather than hurt.

"I thought you might be offering to make it less of a burden on me. You've been a little heavy on the guilt of late," Howie reminded him.

"Yeah, well," AJ threw his arm out, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the Jacuzzi room.

"C'mon," Howie said, choosing not to address the issue right then and there, "let's go get something to fatten your nasty-ass bony self up."

"Way to make a guy feel good about himself, D."

Howie didn't make a big deal about its being the first time AJ had cracked a joke, even a simple sarcastic one, since Sarah's death. He just grinned cheesily and pushed AJ all the way to the car.

*

AJ hadn't expected anyone to come visit him in rehab, hadn't felt he deserved it, hadn't even been sure he wanted it. At the same time, he hadn't been surprised by Kevin's visits, the way they continued, weekly, like clockwork, like Kevin. He hadn't been terribly shocked by the way Nick had peeked his head in about two weeks after AJ had been committed, shy and unsure and missing his friend so very badly. Howie's visit, first with Nick, to give the kid someone to hold on to, and later by himself, to let AJ know that Howie hadn't come just for Nick, had been as close to predictable as anything Howie did. Brian had brought Leighanne and a whole bunch of bad jokes and AJ had cried to him, because Brian had always been the most likely of them to stay calm about that kind of thing.

The idea of Sarah visiting had been so outside his realm of possibility that when she had shown up on the first day that he had been allowed visitors, AJ had blinked and told her, point blank, "You're in LA. Oh shit, I'm seeing things."

She had sat down across from him, crossed her legs fastidiously and rolled her eyes. "You need to put me on a call list, or something. I found out about this from co-worker gossip. Not okay, Aje."

AJ had tried to make sense of everything that was going on. "I didn't know you'd…" fly all the way out here to see me, flitted through his brain, but he decided on the more general, "care."

Sarah had gone unnaturally still. "We've been together for nearly four months. We've known each other for over half a year."

"I think I may have been an asshole for most of that time." AJ hadn't felt up to telling her that he couldn’t remember most of that time as well as he would have liked to.

Sarah had smiled and looked away from him. "Kinda, I guess. You were still the kindest person I've ever met."

"I'm sorry. Um, for cheating on you a few times when I was too drunk to remember I had a girlfriend, and for not calling you when I said I would and for not making sure that you were on the list of people-to-call-in-case-anything-happens and-"

"AJ." Sarah had grabbed his wrist, in a physical request for him to stop. "It's okay, I forgive you. Liz may never be able to after all the cursing and yelling I've done about you in the past few months, but I do. I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

"I'm sorry for making you my trial run before apologizing to the guys and my mother."

Sarah had stroked the side of his face with the hand that wasn't holding his wrist. "One of the things you have to learn when apologizing to people, is what they are actually owed an apology for. I don't forgive you for the last because there is nothing to forgive. If I was more important than the people you consider family at this point, I'm not sure I would want to trust you."

AJ had turned his face to press a kiss sweetly to the inside of her hand.

*

Other than the drive over to his place and the funeral, AJ hadn't been out in the world since Sarah's death over two weeks before. The supermarket was harshly lit with the air-conditioning turned on too low and heinously bad Muzak playing in the background, but it was also late in the evening so there weren't that many people around, which was a plus.

Howie had made a list of basics: milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables, and the blackcurrant tea that AJ drank like it was going out of style being among the items on there. AJ stole away to the cookie aisle and loaded the cart up with three boxes of Pinwheels. Howie didn't even blink, which AJ could easily have kissed him for in the middle of the grocery store. Howie debated the virtues of rigatoni versus fettuccini, finally tossing both into the growing pile with another package of thin spaghetti, just in case. AJ wondered if Howie knew to avoid the mostacioli, that it would force AJ to think of the way that was the only pasta Sarah would make for herself, sliding her fork through the hollow inside rather than just stabbing at the pieces like everyone else.

AJ wished he knew when every single thing would stop reminding him of her. He would have liked to mark the date on his calendar, both to dread and look forward to. The pain of her not actually being there to run with the cart in the near-empty aisles and then hop onto the lower level of it, riding it until it came to a stop, laughing and ignoring AJ's admonitions that she'd call attention to them, was so sharp AJ had to remind himself not to check that there wasn't actually something digging into his lungs, his stomach, his throat. But at least the memory was nearly tangible. He had that much, and he wasn't sure he wanted to let go, not even in exchange for a little less pain.

Howie paid for the groceries with AJ's credit card, smiling evilly, but AJ was glad somebody had remembered it. He didn't want Howie supporting him financially on top of everything else. Howie drove them home and they both worked to get everything put away, peas in the freezer, butter in the refrigerator, peanut butter and crackers in the cabinets. When all that was left were empty bags strewn across the counter, AJ picked up the key ring.

"Going out again?" Howie asked.

AJ drove the keys against the inside of his palm. "I'm gonna go catch a meeting."

"Want me to take you?"

AJ looked doubtful. "You really want to?"

AJ could see a million different responses run their way through Howie's mind. The one he settled on was, "Yes. If you want me to."

AJ tossed him the keys.

*

Sarah had taken unpaid leave to be with him when the concerts started up again, and though she hadn't said anything, AJ had put two and two together with how much time she had been spending away from LA to be with him and informed her, "If you need anything, you just tell me."

"Relax, Aje," she had patted his shoulder, "I can take care of myself."

"Hadn't meant to imply otherwise." AJ hadn't, especially not after she had pulled him together before the first show, holding his face between her hands, reminding him that this was what he lived for, singing was just his version of breathing. Everyone had done their part to get him up on the stage, the guys mostly just by being there, not leaving AJ alone even for a second, but her by actively keeping him aware of how much he wanted to be doing what he had been about to do.

She had made love to him after the first show, her being the one to set the pace this time, not letting him get away with anything, holding him down and whispering, "Let me be the strong one, just for a couple of hours."

AJ had begun to realize in those four days how very little he was going to be able to deny her.

*

AJ had never been overwhelmingly fond of predictability, but it had been reassuring that even when he hadn't known what city he was in, he could tell what an AA meeting was going to be like. LA was no different than anywhere else with the exception of the fact that he had worked his way up to being considered a regular, so the faces were truly familiar rather than just being reminiscent of a thousand other faces.

AJ's sponsor was at the meeting. He smiled when he saw AJ and Howie walk through the door, and walked to where they were, "Hey, brought a friend, huh?"

"Cam, this is Howie. Howie, Cam." He waited for the two men to shake hands. They both knew of each other, but had never met. "Howie's fulfilling the job of live-in nanny for the moment."

Cam raised an expressive eyebrow at AJ, apparently trying to decide if there was sarcasm in his words or not. Cam was a small man, smaller than AJ, with long fingers and large eyes that he used to punctuate all of his words. "Big job."

Howie met Cam's eyes. "He'd do the same for me. Has before."

AJ wanted to protest the lie, explain that mostly, with Caro, he'd just crawled in bed next to Howie, night after night, letting the older man cry.

Howie's answer had satisfied Cam, though, who brought his right hand up in front of him, formed into an 'okay' sign. "Well, we're glad you came. Nat and Ginny and I were hoping you'd show up."

Like Cam, Nat and Ginny had been coming to meetings for upwards of twenty years and were both bona fide sponsors to what they called 'the new breed.' AJ nodded. "I'm here."

It was all he could say for certain right then.

*

His house had smelled alive, like heat and food and human inhabitance, when the cab had dropped him off from the hotel, home at last from the awards shows and the benefits and the concerts. "Hello? Who's here?"

"Aje." Sarah had stood in the kitchen doorway, holding a wooden spoon that was slowly dripping sauce onto the tiled floor. Her hair had been piled messily atop her head, a large apron that said, 'Don't like my cooking? Call 1-800-FUCK-YOU' obscuring whatever else she had been wearing.

AJ had pinned her to the doorway, his hand spread wide over her hip bone, kissing her. He had felt something wet against his back, seeping though his shirt and they had both laughed, realizing what had happened at the same moment. "I got you dirty," she had been grinning, pulling the sticky spoon away from his back.

"I missed you."

She had run the fingers of the hand not holding the spoon over the top of his head, the soft fuzz of the buzz cut brushing against her skin. "You're home for a while now." It had sounded like a question, a request.

AJ had kissed the patch of skin between her eyes. "I'm home. With you." He hadn't thought about how oddly equivalent the statements had sounded.

*

"I'm gonna stay here, for awhile," Howie announced tentatively at three in the morning over a large, shared glass of blackcurrant iced tea.

AJ took several gulps. "Probably for the best." He slid the drink over to Howie. "I don't think it's really okay to have other people take care of the moving process for me. Like, the packing, and picking a house."

Howie followed the non-sequitur like they had been talking about the same thing all along. "Nobody was gonna just pick a house out for you, I think the plan was mostly to see what was available and report back. As far as the packing goes…honestly, we don't think you're ready to handle that yet."

"Yeah." AJ stood up and walked to the patio door. "That's where the favor-asking part of this comes in."

Howie slid the glass back and forth across the condensation pooling on the table. "So ask."

"I'm gonna… I'm gonna do this while my memories of her are still sharp, a little because I think I owe it to her. Mostly because-" AJ broke off, staring out the window, nothing but frustrated silence inside of him.

"Because you want those memories like that, one last time, since there won't be any more."

AJ, grateful that Howie understood what it meant to mourn someone, admitted, "I feel crazy. Masochistic."

"I can't imagine anyone who doesn't go a little bit crazy at a time like this," Howie reassured him, managing not to sound condescending.

AJ turned around, "I'd do anything to bring her back, problems and all." His repeated "Anything," was fierce, fervent, a prayer and a curse.

Howie was nonplussed. "I know, babe."

*

"So," Sarah had draped herself over a visiting Nick, who giggled because Sarah wasn't exactly tiny, but compared to Nick, she was a midget.

"So." He had grinned over his shoulder at her. AJ had bit back a smile of his own.

"Tell me all about the plans for the upcoming birthday, big boy. No pesky AMA's to get in the way of an all night bash."

AJ had been tempted to say something lewd about the fact that the AMA's, and Kevin and Nick's gracious agreement to show at them so that AJ and the others wouldn't have to, hadn't gotten in the way of his and Sarah's private all night celebration at all. He had held his tongue and wondered briefly when he had told Sarah that Nick's birthday was coming up.

Nick had shrugged, Sarah rising and falling along with his shoulders. "I dunno, I had a big party last year. Superbowl. Twenty-one. This year seems pretty anti-climatic, I hadn't thought much about plans."

"Hm. That just won't do," Sarah had pronounced.

AJ had stood up to pry her off Nick and set her in his own lap. "No? Whatcha gonna do about it, huh?"

She had answered AJ while looking at Nick, "I plan a wicked party."

Nick had nodded solemnly. "If it's gonna make you happy."

"Aw," she had said, mildly facetious.

"How'd you know when my birthday was anyway?" Nick hadn't acknowledged her snark.

Sarah had relaxed from the upright position she had been holding herself in to fall against AJ. "I thought it might be one of those things that's important to this one." She had pointed over her shoulder.

Nick had laughed, saying softly, "Well, aren't you just Little Miss Keeper?"

AJ had recognized the question as rhetorical.

*

Kevin and Kris were at the house along, with several truckloads' worth of boxes, and a lifetime's supply of packaging tape, the next morning when AJ fell off the couch while dreaming of Sarah. Howie asked, "You okay?"

AJ nodded. "I need a shower."

He showered in the guestroom, using Howie's overnight bottles of Aveda and the Crabtree & Evelyn hand soap that Sarah had made sure graced every sink in the house. He stuffed the towel in his mouth before drying off with it and thought about screaming for several minutes. In the end, he patted himself dry, slipped on some jeans and a shirt and wandered back to where everybody had been at last sighting.

AJ sat down behind Kris, rubbing her shoulders deeply, the way she liked it. "I hear congrats are in order, gorgeous."

Kris twisted around to smile at him, radiating contentment. He smiled back, if less enthusiastically. "You feeling okay?"

"I'm always fine after I've sacrificed half my body weight to the porcelain goddess each morning." Kris turned back to her project, constructing the broken-down boxes into operable packing units.

"Pleasant," AJ kneaded some more, hitting a particularly tense spot in her back, working through it despite her pained gasps.

Kevin looked up. "You abusing my wife, McLean?"

"I provide her with services you can only dream of, Richardson." AJ pressed a knuckle into the spot for several seconds and released the pressure, a relieved sob coming from Kris. "Better?"

"I am naming my first born after you, Alexander McLean," Kris declared.

"You might wanna stop saying that now that you have to actually deliver on the promise," Howie suggested.

Kevin rolled over from where he was and kissed his wife's knee. AJ watched.

*

Howie had liked Sarah pretty early on, which had been the final and most important factor in proposing to her. AJ valued, respected, and trusted all of the guy's opinions, but when it came to women whom AJ was dating, Howie had always been the hardest to please and the most intuitively correct one of the four. Howie hadn't liked Amanda at all.

Howie had met Sarah back before the two of them were dating, had been over at AJ's place when she had dropped by on one of her I'm-in-between-fucks-entertain-me jaunts. AJ had been ready to defend her after the three of them had gone home for the night and Howie had called not five minutes later.

"I know, what you're gonna say, D, but we have the best time togeth-"

Howie had cut AJ off. "You obviously don't know what I'm gonna say. I think she has a good heart."

"Oh." It had taken AJ a moment to understand. "Really?"

"Really. She's fucked up and I don't think you should get involved with her until she figures herself out, but I like her."

AJ and Howie hadn't been talking much around the time that AJ and Sarah finally got together. Howie tended to display anger by avoiding the person he was angry with, but he had caught on and come out of his anger long enough to ask AJ if Sarah had figured herself out yet.

"As much as I have," AJ had responded, disgustingly glad that Howie was talking to him and determined in every way not to show it.

Howie had shook his head and gone back to not saying anything to AJ -- outside of appearances -- until Howie's first visit to the rehab clinic. AJ had told him, the second time he had come, "Sarah's been visiting me."

"I know. I saw her on the sign-in list. You want me to check up on her?"

AJ had watched his still less-than-steady hands tremble slightly against his knees. He had wondered if it was really from the withdrawal or from other things that he hadn't wanted to think about. "Yeah, um. That would be nice of you. And maybe, if you could program her number your cell's speed-dial, she says she found out about this from co-worker gossip. She deserves better."

Howie had grimaced at the double-entendre. "You're gonna be better."

"I wasn't-"

"You were."

Howie had always been the type of person who didn't enter a fight unless he knew he could win. AJ hadn't continued the argument, sensing the futility.

"Do me a favor?" Howie's voice had been firm, a cross between a question and a command.

AJ had peered at him, curious.

"Don't talk your way out of this, don't tell yourself that she's too good or that things are too fucked up or whatever it is you tell yourself about the worthwhile ones, because she might not be, but then again she might be perfect for you."

AJ had told her, when he had presented her with the flower bud that held the ring he had customized to be hers and only hers, "I think you might be perfect for me. For the rest of my life."

*

Brian came over with Leighanne, bearing Chinese take-out. Nick had shown up a few hours previously and had been drafted into helping pack up the linen closets. Brian and Leighanne walked through the house, rounding up its various inhabitants and shepherding them into the kitchen.

AJ drank two glasses of water before declaring, "I think I'm gonna put most of this stuff in storage. The stuff I don't wanna get rid of. I'm pretty sure I'm not really ready for something as permanent as another house."

Kevin twirled several strands of Lo Mein around his fork. "What were you thinking instead?"

AJ reached for a plate and picked up different containers, deciding what he wanted. Brian handed AJ the Szechwan Chicken, earning himself a grateful smile. "I don't really know yet. I thought one of you might know if there was an apartment subletting in one of your buildings."

Nick speared a piece of crunchy beef rather fiercely with his fork. "I think there might be one in mine, I thought I saw a flier up for it about a week ago. I dunno if they've found someone yet."

AJ shrugged and waited until he had chewed enough to speak without spitting. "Just keep your eyes open, I guess."

Howie, whose plate was mostly full despite the fact that they'd been eating for nearly a half hour, spoke up. "How would you feel about being my roommate?"

AJ drank half a glass of water.

Howie pushed his food around on his plate. "I know you're scared to live with anyone who's not Sarah. But you're also scared of living alone and of making a commitment to any one place. So here's the deal. You pay half the rent and the utilities on a monthly basis. You have the second bedroom entirely to yourself, it even has a lock on the door for when you can't stand seeing my face one second longer. The minute you feel like moving out, you tell me, we find a place for you, the arrangement ceases. No contracts, no commitments, all you have to do is put up with one roommate."

Brian picked up the Sesame Chicken container and began to eat straight out of it, causing Leighanne to smack him in chagrin. If he noticed, it didn't cause a change in his behavior. "I think Howie missed his calling."

Nick and Brian grinned at each other, chiming in with, "Door-to-door sales!"

Everyone else in the room rolled their eyes, mostly out of principle. AJ tried to eat more of what was on his plate and gave up, having reached the half-way mark. "Sounds good, D."

Howie ate his lunch and what was left of AJ's.

*

Around the fourth or fifth time Sarah had turned him down when AJ had asked her to be his date to some kind of Event, AJ had thrown his hands up and inquired, "Are you embarrassed to be my girlfriend, or something?"

Sarah had laughed, "Yeah, that's it, Aje. That's why my mom and any of my relatives who own a telephone and my friends reaching back to college all know that I'm dating you."

"So what is this, then? You have an ex in the mob who will come after you and kill both of us in some kind of gory, all-out, got-nothing-on-Reservoir-Dogs manner?"

Sarah's mouth had hung open for a second. "Did you just come up with that? Like, right off the top of your head?"

AJ had fought not to smile. "Sarah."

"I just don't want to be 'AJ McLean's Girlfriend' for the rest of my given existence. I will be no matter how hard I try to avoid it, but I'd still prefer to put much effort as I can into the attempt. Call my life an exercise in futility, what can I say?"

AJ's amusement had disappeared, leaving a trail of nausea in its place. "I don't think of you that way."

"I didn't mean to imply you did, baby. Or the guys, or my friends, or anyone who matters, really, but everyone else would. I came out here to become someone, I did things I never thought I'd do to make that happen and here it is, happening, but only in the sense that I'm an adjunct to you. I don't… I'm not ready to give up on myself quite that much yet." Sarah's hands had stolen around AJ's wrists, tugging at them lightly, physically pleading for him to understand.

AJ had dragged her by her hands in front of the closest mirror and then stepped out of the way. "That's Sarah Marten. She's gorgeous and talented, I know because I listen to her when she's in the shower, or doing laundry or just sitting around, singing along with TV jingles. She's dating some guy, but he doesn't much matter, because all I see when I look at her is her. She takes up so much of my world that sometimes I miss other things that are probably important, but I find it really hard to care."

Sarah had looped a finger through one of AJ's belt loops and tugged him up against her. The two of them had fit perfectly within the frame of the mirror. She had looked away, but AJ hadn't noticed at the time, he had been too busy staring at her.

*

When AJ had thought about packing up, touching her things, putting them away to be unearthed later, he had thought of it in the abstract. No particular picture frame had sprung to mind, perfume bottles hadn't been a consideration. He hadn't made a plan as to which rooms would go first and which would be saved for later, when he could open their doors and walk in and breathe all at the same time.

Howie asked him, "You have a plan?" when all the others had left and they were standing in the doorway, AJ still waving out of rote.

AJ dropped his hand. "For?"

"How the packing is gonna go." Howie pulled AJ inside and shut the door.

"We pack until everything that can fit in a box is in one?" AJ thought it sounded like a pretty solid plan.

"You haven't gone in your bedroom or the Jacuzzi room once, Aje. We've been here nearly a week and you don't even look in the direction of either room. Which is fine, but I need to know if you want us to take care of those rooms, you wanna wait until the end with them…"

AJ scrubbed a hand over his face. He turned silently and began walking. Howie followed without saying a word, stopping behind AJ when the younger man put his hand on the knob of the Jacuzzi room door and went still. "You don't have to, you know."

AJ's knuckles tightened. "I have to see if I can." He pressed the knob down and swung the door open. Howie followed AJ's slow steps into the room, a step at a time. AJ got two feet inside before breaking for the small waste bin kept by one of the lawn chairs. Howie knelt beside AJ, rubbing at the back of his neck until the vomiting stopped.

"Can you stand up?"

"That's." AJ's throat was raw. "That's not the problem."

"Okay, what is?"

"I can't turn around."

Howie glanced behind them. The bottle of Valium was still lying beside the tub where Sarah had been found slumped up against it. There were a few capsules scattered. Howie stood up. "Stay here, don't move." He got up to go clean up the mess.

"I told her that. I told her to stay here. She didn't listen."

Howie put the pills back in the bottle and stuck it in his pocket for disposal once they got out of the room. AJ was using the only trash in the room and Howie didn’t want to leave him there by himself.

"I need you to listen to me though. You're gonna keep your eyes closed, and we're gonna walk out of here." Howie put a hand beneath either of AJ's elbows and slowly guided him to his feet. AJ placed a significant amount of his weight against Howie, trusting him to get them out of the room without incident. When they were beyond the door, Howie took one hand off AJ and used it to shut the door. AJ heard the locking mechanism settle into place and opened his eyes. Tears that had been stored up under the cover of his eyelids fell, soaking his face before he even got the chance to let out his first sob.

AJ's tears were silent and insistent and so harsh as to be physically painful. AJ strained against them, strained against Howie's comforting touches, broke free of both with, "I hate her, I need her so much."

*

Sarah had liked to try new things. She had never ordered the same dish at a restaurant, no matter how much she had loved it, had bought CDs that she hadn't heard a single song off of because the covers had caught her eye, and had read books that people she didn't necessarily know well or even like had recommended. AJ had often thought that she had started dating him more because he wasn't something she had ever done before than out of any real interest in AJ himself.

He had bought her a tank of piranhas once as a gift, with the words, "It's something different," inked onto the Plexiglas of the tank. Sarah had kept them alive for nearly a year before deciding that she wasn't really into the whole having-to-feed-your-pets-live-bait scene and donating them to a marine-life center.

When Nick had been out, gallivanting around, promoting his single album, and AJ had been at home with her, wanting a drink so badly he had been willing to gnaw his arm off to get one, he had asked, "What happens when I'm not new and different anymore?"

She had shaken her head disbelievingly. "I knew I wanted to marry you because you were the one thing in my life that I woke up in the morning expecting and still wanting it all the same."

AJ had downed a bottle of pineapple juice and then made love to her until Nick had been scheduled to appear on the Early Show.

*

Cam was married to a woman who was more of a Southern Belle than Brian's and Kevin's mothers put together. AJ showed up to his second meeting since Sarah's death a week after the first one, this time on his own. Cam got up to greet him holding a tumbler wrapped in red gingham and tied up with a blue satin bow. He held it out to AJ. "Apricot preserves. From Val, she's worried aboutcha."

AJ took the jar. "Give her a kiss for me and tell her that apricot's one of my favorites." It wasn't, but Brian loved it and AJ had a soft spot for Val a mile wide.

"Your friend not with you tonight?" Cam lead them over to the coffee and poured himself a refill. AJ would have guessed at its being Cam's third or fourth of the evening. The meeting had started an hour before.

"I told him to go out or play his guitar or call his mom. They've all been helping me pack all week and he's stayed at the house with me, I don't want him going insane for lack of time to himself."

"He sounds like a good friend."

AJ narrowed his eyes. "You knew he was a good friend. They all are. They stood by me. I've told you all this."

Cam held up his hands. "I didn't mean it as a backhanded insult. Val barely stayed with me through some of my rough spots and she's legally bound to me. I just…look, sometimes people still have the ability to pleasantly surprise me. Allow me my shock."

AJ poured himself a coffee more out of the need for something to do with his hands than really desiring the beverage. "Howie's a brother."

"Two of my brothers don't speak to me anymore, Aje. Just because somebody loves you doesn't mean they'll stand by you when you most need it." Cam started to drink his sufficiently cooled coffee.

"Is this your way of telling me not to take him for granted?" AJ met Cam's eyes.

"Something like that."

AJ wanted to set down his coffee cup and walk out of the meeting, or something equally defensive and dramatic, but he couldn't remember if he had thanked Howie for everything yet, so instead he took a sip and nodded. "Okay."

*

Sarah had been graced with a chicken pox scar near her right elbow. It was small, a round indentation in otherwise smooth skin. AJ had liked dipping his head to it, kissing it to initiate sex, or sometimes, in the middle of dinner parties, just to remind her of how much he loved her.

He had enjoyed pressing his thumbs against the backs of her knees lightly, hearing the resulting giggle. "Pillsbury dough girl," he had called her and she had stuck her tongue out at him, "You're gonna give me a complex."

He had liked catching her wrists in the air, mid-stretch, first thing in the morning. Her wrists had fit inside his palm, like one of the litter of kittens he had once helped his grandmother to deliver. Her weight would inevitably fall into his hands and then he would hold her, keeping her suspended as he relearned every feature, just in case it had changed while he was sleeping. He had been afraid not to know everything about her, as if she could slip away if he wasn't prepared to tell someone exactly how far the darkest freckle on her left cheek lay from her nose.

He had paid attention to the way her stomach moved when she sang and her feet made odd circular motions when she dog-paddled.

When the nightmares had started -- dark, seemingly incoherent nightmares that left her shaking and unable to sleep again -- he had thought that his knowledge could ward them off. He had been sure that his knowledge of her was more than that of whatever had its grasp on her and was hurting her. For awhile, his presence, the way he had woken her up before she could scream, and had run out into the night to buy her comfort food of her choice at four AM, these things had warded off the nightmares and the depression that accompanied them. AJ, who had known better than to underestimate the psychosis of depression, had let himself believe, when she had fallen back into having harmless dreams of racing toaster ovens down deserted Disneyland streets and other such oddities, that the two of them and their knowledge of each other, had won.

*

Howie was in his pajamas, sprawled out over the couch, damp hair curling over his forehead when AJ got back from the meeting. A syndicated "Will & Grace" episode was playing on the TV. "Hey," Howie said, a residual smile from laughing at a joke on his face.

AJ sat down, picking up Howie's legs and placing them on AJ's knees. "Good ep?"

Howie made an inconclusive noise. "I think I've become easy to amuse."

"You were always easy to amuse, we just didn't want to tell you and hurt your feelings."

"Thanks for that, I guess." Howie leaned his head against the side of the couch and shut his eyes.

"Tired?"

"Mm. I used your weights while you were gone."

AJ poked at the flesh of Howie's calf. It changed colors but didn't give. "I should have known."

"Shuddup."

"D." AJ shook Howie's feet a little bit. "Open your eyes, D."

Howie opened them and looked at AJ with open concern. "You okay? The meeting go all right?"

"Yeah, that's fine. I just thought I might have forgotten to tell you thank you for all of this."

"Oh." Howie shut his eyes again. "You didn't need to."

"I needed to," AJ disagreed.

"I love you, Aje," Howie said the words as though they made his every point evident.

"Well, I know, but that doesn't really give me the right to be an ungrateful bastard."

"You weren't being an ungrateful bastard."

AJ sighed and gave up. "I love you too."

"That I don't mind hearing."

*

AJ had learned from Kevin and Brian that the way to plan a wedding was pretty much not to. Instead, if the groom just sat around and looked presentable, everyone else would handle the details. Sarah had been a basket case in the weeks preceding the event, so AJ had done a lot of calming her down in between his sitting around jaunts. He had checked with Kevin and Brian to make sure this was normal and they had both seemed to think it was, so AJ hadn't worried.

He had offered, when he had woken up to her crying herself to sleep out of stress, "We could elope."

Sarah had given a watery chuckle. "That would only end in our murders."

"Probably, but the misery would be short, rather than protracted."

Sarah had burrowed herself nearly into AJ's chest. "You may have a point."

AJ had stroked her back. "I don't care if my wedding is a disaster so long as it ends in me being bound to you for the rest of my life."

"See, you say that now-"

"No, Sar. I'm saying that. It's an unretractable statement, okay? Sure, I like the ceremony involved in the wedding, I'm a romantic, of course I like it. I like the idea of everybody gaping at my gorgeous soon-to-be-wife as she walks down the aisle in her dress. But in the end, if you had said, 'let's hop on down to the Justice of the Peace and get ourselves some paperwork,' I would have been in the passenger's seat before you made it to the garage."

Sarah had moved herself a bit so that her face was on a level with AJ's. "I hadn't previously been aware of this, but evidently I become completely psychotic when I'm in love with someone."

"That's okay, I think it's kinda cute." AJ had brought up a hand to wipe the hair back from her face.

Sarah had sucked one of his fingers into her mouth with a mischievous smile and then bit down. "Cute, eh?"

*

Kevin, Kristin, Brian and Leighanne took charge of packing up the master bedroom and the Jacuzzi room. AJ had discussed the matter with all of them and come to the conclusion that the best manner of handling the situation would be to pack everything and put it in storage until AJ was ready to deal with it.

Kevin had called a moving company and scheduled a time for them to come out with two trucks, one to transport the stuff that was going to Howie's place and one to take the rest of the boxes to storage. AJ was selling the house mostly still furnished. He had done most of the furnishing when he had first moved in, and it still spoke of the excitement of being able to afford a house like that in LA. AJ thought he had probably outgrown the furnishings long before, and this was just the first time he had had reason to notice.

Howie found a real-estate agent that he liked and introduced the agent to AJ for approval. AJ gave the go-ahead and the agent talked numbers. She spoke as if speaking to AJ, but Howie was in the room the whole time and AJ depended on him to deal with the technicalities. Howie would have done his research before picking someone and would know what to expect and what all the papers said and which ones AJ should sign.

Howie's apartment felt smaller than it actually was with boxes strewn about almost all of the rooms. Howie and AJ stayed awake for three days and three nights straight, stopping only to eat, going through the boxes and finding places to put everything. AJ had been content to put the decorations that he had brought along with him up in his room, but Howie had muttered something fierce about shared rent and began rearranging the décor to fit AJ's Kadinsky print in the den and AJ's Venetian Carnival mask in the kitchen.

AJ worked on fitting his pictures of the guys in with Howie's and before long the wall that had started out having a picture album feel to it was more along the lines of a shrine, but the wall Howie had chosen was easy to see from most of the rooms in the apartment and having it covered in good memories made AJ feel better.

They finally crashed after getting the last pair of AJ's pants hung up at dawn on the fourth day. AJ literally crawled to his bed, Howie right behind him. Howie murmured, "You don't mind if I stay? Across the hall seems kinda far right now."

"Yeah," AJ agreed.

*

Sarah had never been to Europe, had often asked him about it. He had felt disappointing, usually unable to tell her what she had wanted to know. She had asked about the food in France and he had shrugged, "They weren't really paying for the good stuff and the bad stuff…well, it was bad, and we were constantly trying to find a McD's, or anything vaguely American. We hoarded the money our moms sent us just in case one showed up near a hotel."

He had always tried to find something that would satisfy her curiosity, like the time she had asked if the beer in Germany tasted different than the ones imported over to America and he had tried desperately to remember if they could afford any of the higher class beers, the ones that were good enough to get exported. Mostly, he remembered them ordering pitchers of the cheapest stuff, Germany's version of Coors or Bud. He had kept that truth to himself though and said, "Shit'll knock you off your feet."

She had looked like she thought she was fighting a battle lost before it was even begun when she had started a conversation with, "I was thinking about our honeymoon-"

"It's up to you, babe."

Sarah's expression had turned to one of suspicious confusion. "There's nowhere you want to go?"

AJ hadn't known how to explain to her that traveling had become just another word for day-to-day living for him. "I want to go somewhere with you."

"Well, yeah." Sarah had sounded exasperated. "That's why they call it a honeymoon, dipshit."

"Where do you wanna go, Sar?"

Sarah had looked at the ground. "Europe."

"That's pretty vague, unless you were thinking of a three month honeymoon, in which case, I have to talk to the guys-"

"No, Aje, no." She had shook her head at him. "Maybe a week in France, at a resort, the Riviera, or somewhere less populated. A few days in Venice or Rome, so I can go look at art museums, and then Vienna or Paris so that I can go to the Opera, which I know isn't really your thing, but spoil me." Sarah had earned her bachelor's in music history and her depth of knowledge on the subject had never once ceased to amaze AJ.

AJ had gotten up and crossed the room to kiss the small smile that had stolen onto her face while roughly planning out the trip. "Rotten," was all he said. He had called his travel agent a few hours later.

*

AJ returned empty-handed after having been gone from the apartment for nearly four hours two days after having moved in and Howie calmly inquired, "Where were you?" in a tone that screamed of the fact that Howie was reminding himself that AJ was a big boy.

"I went to go see Sherry. I'm sorry I didn’t leave a note." AJ sounded validly contrite.

Howie sighed. "I was worried, Aje."

AJ nodded. "Sorry."

"Sherry Walker?"

"Mm." Sherry was AJ's psychiatrist. He had found her after going to about seven others when the depression had first begun kicking in badly, shortly after their split from Transcon. They had an odd relationship in that AJ didn't particularly like or trust psychiatrists, or even really think that they helped, but he always went back to her when he was in a situation that he knew he couldn't get himself out of.

"Was that good?" Howie's voice was soft, as if he wasn't sure if he should be asking.

"I don't know." AJ walked into the kitchen and stated loudly from there, "She said she was glad I was staying with you."

Howie followed him. "Well, that makes two of us."

"Three." AJ grabbed two glasses and held one out to Howie. "She pisses me off."

"That's why you go back to her. She's the only person you found that you thought was telling you the truth." Howie took his glass and reached out to take AJ's as well.

"She said that it was okay to remember Sarah any way I wanted to so long as the way I chose meant that I didn't stay in my memories with her." AJ gave him the second glass.

Howie poured them both glasses of the lemonade he had made while worrying about AJ. Squeezing lemons had seemed like a good way to keep from destroying less disposable things. "What do you take that to mean?"

AJ swiped his now-full glass off the table and took a large swig. "This is good, you make it?"

Howie took a sip of his and waited.

"I take it to mean that she thinks I'm remembering her with rose-colored glasses. That I've made things so good in my head I don't want to have to leave there."

"And?"

"And I haven't." AJ took another drink, this one more of a size that would be possible to taste. "I haven't. I know who she was D, good and bad. I know that she got pissy over minor infractions sometimes and that when she was depressed she could be mean as all hell and that sometimes she lied more than she should have. It's not that I don't remember all of that. It's just that I want her back anyway. So maybe I am stuck, I dunno."

"Caro was a bitch first thing in the morning and she had to have things her way all the time and she had bad taste in music. I still want her back."

"Do you think you're in a rut?"

"No." Howie finished his lemonade and poured himself a second glass. "I think that there are some memories that travel with you. You just have to find a way of knowing that they're memories and that they can't and shouldn't compete with what's there, in the room with you."

AJ jumped up on the counter, resting his head against the cabinets. "Sherry wants me to come twice a week for awhile."

Howie accepted the change in conversation. "You gonna?"

AJ allowed his flip flops to fall off his feet to the floor. "I made another appointment."

"It's okay to go one day at a time, so long as you know you're moving forward."

"I'm not entirely sure you won't have to keep track of that for me."

Howie put the lemonade pitcher in the refrigerator.

*

Sarah had pointed out, "There's nothing exactly that says that I can't have more than one Matron of Honor. It's just tradition, really, that it happens that way."

AJ had asked, "You have a mother you've been hiding away? Keeping in our closet or something?"

Sarah had drawn herself up to her full height. "I could take a really cheap shot here, but I'm going to be the bigger person and say, why no, I don't have another mother that I hide in the closet. I want your mom to be in our wedding."

AJ had blinked at her. "Since when did you decide that you were a bigger person than me?"

"AJ."

AJ had held up his hands. "I know, I know. I'm just bad at saying thank you for the big shit like that, you know this about me."

Sarah had corrected him. "You're not bad at saying thank you, you're just bad at verbalizing the sentiment."

AJ had stuttered, "My mom's gonna, well she's-"

"All you've got, really, and a total dear, and someone I would probably want next to my side even if she hadn't given birth to and raised the guy I'm stupid enough over to marry."

"You're gonna have to ask her though. Because she won't say yes if I do, no matter how much she wants it."

"Duh."

"Don't go acting like you know my own mom better than I do."

"I'll go acting like I know women better than you do any day of the week."

"Oh." AJ had thought that over for a second. "I guess I can accept that."

*

Brian called AJ late on a Tuesday night and told him, "Leigh and I are at Maraschino's. Wanna join?"

By the time AJ got there so had all the other guys. It was hardly a surprise that everyone had been invited; Brian was the type of guy who had probably invited his entire class to his birthday parties until junior high just to make sure nobody got left out.

Maraschino's was an ice cream place that made their ice cream daily. The real reason to come was the waffle cones, though, which the customers could watch being made. AJ ordered himself a scoop of cookies and cream just so that he could get one of the old-fashioned cones. Leighanne had ordered three scoops of ice cream in a cone that was chocolate dipped and covered in sprinkles. AJ tried not to watch in fascination as she methodically demolished the cone and its contents.

He used a diversionary tactic on himself and announced, "I want to get back in the studio."

Everyone stared at him for a second before Nick asked, "Really?"

"No Nick, I'm just saying that." AJ felt bad about being snippy before the words even left his mouth, but he had been treated as though he were made of some particularly fine Italian glass by them before and he hadn't much liked it that time, either.

"You don't have to be an asshole, this is the first you've mentioned. And it hasn't been that long." Nick didn't sound particularly put off and AJ smiled at him. Nick grinned back.

"It's been a month and six days," AJ told them all.

Kevin bit down noisily on his cone. "We can go back anytime. I just have to call the studio and tell them we're ready to reserve time again. Do we wanna do full days every day, or maybe an every other day kind of thing? We've put off the album indefinitely," there was a note to Kevin's voice that told AJ the older man had done his fair share of screaming and mollycoddling to get that accomplished, "so it's up to us really."

Kristin leaned in against Kevin, kissing his shoulder. "I'd appreciate if you weren't in the studio in the mornings."

Leighanne nodded silently next to Brian. Brian let his hand drop to where hers was and intertwined the two with a muttered, "Sticky."

"How does afternoon to evening sound for everyone? Every day?"

Howie waited for AJ to nod before joining in, Brian waited for Leighanne to squeeze his hand in approval, Nick waited to see what everyone else was going to do.

"Okay then." Kevin popped the tip of his ice cream cone in his mouth. "This is good."

AJ made a wish over the tip of his ice cream cone and followed suit.

*

Sarah had whispered to him, "I'm Mrs. Alexander McLean," as the plane's front wheels lifted off the ground in LA. She had still had a rose petal stuck in her hair. He had left it where it was.

"Does it feel right?" The plane had dipped slightly, correcting its course to Nice.

Sarah had been swallowed up by the first class plane seat, and it had been quite a ways for her to lean in order to kiss AJ. She had done it anyway. "Perfect."

He had wanted to make love to her in their seats, ignoring the other passengers. He had settled for saying, "I'm yours."

She had smiled. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure the vows covered that clause, too."

"Just didn't want there being any doubt."

*

AJ figured out that they weren't working on any of the songs that he had substantial leads in pretty quickly, but didn't mention it, because it was as obvious to him as any of the others that his voice needed to be reminded a bit of what it did for a living before it was ready to dive straight back into the vocal acrobatics that several of the tracks on the album required.

AJ and Howie spent a lot of time harmonizing around the apartment. Doo-wop songs in the morning while making coffee and trying to wake up, Motown ballads in the evening, and anything that either one of them started and the other one joined in on during all the times in between when they weren't in the studio.

Howie sometimes sang songs in Spanish. AJ didn't know the words, and would provide a back-up melody, stringing along la-la-las and a bit of humming when nothing else quite fit.

AJ would get on a rock kick and Howie would provide guitar sounds, high and nearly electric.

There were times when AJ wouldn't join in, mostly when Howie was singing to him, lullabies to get him back to sleep after a nightmare. It should have been stupid and childish and AJ wanted to hate it but instead ended up buying Billy Joel's 'River of Dreams' album only to find that he preferred Howie's high-pitched a cappella version of that particular lullaby. He suspected it would be pretty much the same with 'Rockabye' and held off on buying Shawn Mullin's album.

Howie finished a three lullaby set one evening to find AJ still awake, fighting to keep his eyes open. Howie started to sing a fourth before stopping, interrupting the song with words with no melody, "Taking comfort in this isn't a crime. I don't think less of you. I wouldn't sing if your accepting my song was going to lessen you in my eyes."

"I feel like a fucking child who wants his mother to come back. I'm amazed I haven't started wetting the fucking bed."

"Don't say stuff like that out loud, you know it's bad karma," Howie told him. "And she wasn't your mother. And you aren't a kid for wanting her back."

"D-"

"Aje, so I sing to you, okay? I have a feeling it's more me being here, in the room, than anything else. I could sing Nine Inch Nails if that would make it easier for you. You'd fall asleep all the same, I promise, it's not about the music."

"Maybe. Maybe I want it to be about the music."

"Yeah," Howie agreed after a long silence. "Life would be a lot nicer that way, wouldn't it?"

*

In hindsight, AJ had always thought it was the high of coming home from their honeymoon that had made her relent and say, "You wouldn't happen to be willing to trade some recording time on your label for sexual favors, wouldja?"

AJ could have counted the number of times she had asked him for help beyond, "Pass the pepper, please," on the fingers of one hand. So instead of pointing out that maybe she should think about that decision a little more and get back to him he had asked, "What kind of sexual favors?"

AJ had gotten well-laid and Sarah had gotten a small, not-very-flashy album filled with pop tracks that had showcased her voice and not much else, which had been exactly what she had wanted. Her picture on the front was unassuming and her name was still Sarah Marten according to the CD cover, something she had put her foot down on and AJ hadn't really disagreed with.

AJ had wondered, when the reviews started rolling in, telling potential buyers that Sarah's voice was anywhere from, "sultry and enjoyable," to "smooth and solid," to "enjoyably pop-perfect," if things would have been different if the album hadn't been released under Backstreet's label. If reviewers wouldn't have felt it necessary to start off their reviews, "In her debut album, AJ McLean's wife…" If they wouldn't have been so ready to ridicule her efforts, oftentimes openly pointing out that "fame is an easy road when you have a husband who can provide it for you."

AJ had constantly had to remind himself not to glare when reporters would ask him what he thought of the album. He had had to train himself never to call her his wife in his responses. "I think Sarah's one of the most talented women I've ever met in my life," or, "I'm blown away by Sarah and what she can do. This album is something she's been working toward for a long time and I think she really accomplished what she set out to do with it," or some variation thereof. Never, "I'm so proud of my brilliant, talented wife," never that.

The album had sold decently: Backstreet had enough fans who had promoted it on their websites to propel it onto the charts, and the first single had made it in to the top 40. AJ had heard it in the car one day and had nearly killed himself and a few other people on the freeway dialing Sarah's number to tell her to turn the radio on. After the song, the DJ had announced, "That was Sarah Marten, AJ McLean's wife's new single, 'Hear This.' Good stuff, huh?"

AJ had wished he hadn't been able to get through to her.

*

AJ packed an overnight bag, took the airline tickets out from where he had been hiding them just in case he decided he actually did want to use them, drove himself to the airport and called Howie once he was past check-in.

"What's up?"

"I'm at the airport, I'm gonna go spend time with my mom for the holiday."

"You got a last minute ticket the day before Thanksgiving?" There were very few things that still amazed Howie, but AJ sensed this was probably one of them.

"No, I booked it awhile ago, I booked two, actually. Which was why… I didn't know if I was going until today."

Howie's voice was gentle as he asked, "Did you tell the airline she wasn't going to make it?"

"I couldn't." AJ's words were short, mixed with equal parts frustration and pain.

"It's okay, they'll figure it out," Howie reassured him. "You want me to see if I can hop a flight on Friday or something? I'm sure one of our people can swing that for me."

AJ's thoughts took a sudden turn toward the panicky. "What are you gonna do?" Nick had flown out to join Aaron and Angel the day before, Brian and Leighanne were in Kentucky and Kevin and Kristin were in Kansas City, with her family. AJ hadn't considered the fact that Howie probably wasn't sticking around LA because he couldn't get plane tickets. "You were staying for me, weren't you? Fuck, I'm a shithead, D. Really, I didn't even think-"

"AJ. Shut up."

"But-"

"No, I'm serious. Aaron's tour is in Portland. I can make the drive up there by tomorrow and spend the holiday with them. Then, if you want, I'll fly out on Friday and make Nick drive my car back."

"You should make Nick drive back with you anyway."

Howie snorted. "Probably."

"Stay in Portland, ok?" AJ said this all in one breath, a single exhalation.

"You sure?"

"Yeah. I need…to make sure I can be without you guys, you, for a weekend. It's kind of a false test, with my mom being there and everything, but it's something."

"You'll be fine." Howie didn't sound like he thought AJ was being melodramatic, just like it was something AJ needed to hear.

AJ was glad one of them could say it. "I know. But seeing is believing, evidently."

"Have a safe flight, babe. Call me when you get there."

"Will do."

"Don't forget AJ."

"Yes mom."

"Bye, you gigantic pain in my ass."

AJ wasn't sure if Howie caught his, "Love you, too," before hanging up.

*

Sarah had gone on tour without him, opening for Brandy rather than headlining because, "The last fucking thing I need right now is people saying my husband underwrote the damn tour, thanks."

He had wanted to go along, but when he had mentioned talking to the guys about postponing recording just a bit longer she had looked at him coldly and said, "Sweet of you, but no."

He had drawn back and she had come back to herself, the way she sometimes would after a night where even crying for hours on end couldn't get her to sleep, and had apologized, "Babe, it's not that I don't want you there, I do, of course I do. I just…"

He had finished for her, as exhausted as she was from staying up those nights with her, "Don’t want my being there to eclipse you."

He had never admitted to the problem before, had always let her be the one to snipe about it or cry about it or just mention it, but it had always been her situation to react to. She had looked straight at him now that the words had been put between them, her eyes neither confirming or denying.

He had offered, "I could leave, if that would make it better for you." He had been amazed his breath had held out during the offer, had doubted that he was anything but transparent in the fact that he wouldn't know what to do if she took him up on it.

She had walked to him at that, pulled him into her, breathed unevenly into the slope of his neck. "I know it doesn't always seem like it, and I'm sorry for that, I'm sorry for a lot of things that I probably don’t apologize for, but our marriage is more important than my career. I love you more than some silly CD, I do."

It had been nice to hear the words, but AJ had wondered if she loved him more than her independent identity.

*

"Hi." AJ stood on his mother's doorstep. "Sorry I didn't…I didn’t know I was coming."

Denise pulled him into her arms, carry-on luggage and all. "That's okay, I'm just glad you're here."

The last time AJ had seen his mother had been a few days after the funeral, hugging her goodbye before Brian drove her to the airport. She had offered to stay but AJ had shook his head and said, "I'll call if I need you," and he had, on a weekly basis, sometimes more, just to say, "I miss you," and hear her certain, unwavering, "I love you," come back without hesitation.

She herded him into the house, pushing the bag off his shoulder in the front hallway and leading him to the couch, where she sat down next to him, their sides lined up neatly against each other. "I was gonna go to Diana's tomorrow night, but I'll call and cancel if you'll help me make dinner here. That okay, just you and me?"

AJ put his head down on her shoulder, tired from the flight, from reminding himself that the adolescent male flying standby in the seat next to him had every right to that seat. "I was kinda hoping for that, actually."

Denise kissed his forehead, "You're warm."

AJ smiled wearily, enjoying her concern. "Just tired, mom."

"You want anything to eat before you crash? Food plane is shit." Denise pulled herself to her feet and hauled AJ up after her.

"Just a glass of water. Not really hungry."

Denise frowned. "You've lost weight."

"I know, Nick bitches about my supermodel physique on a daily basis."

"Tell Nick he can keep his thoughts to himself or he'll have me to deal with," Denise threatened playfully. Nick was nearly as much of a son to her as AJ was.

"Great, now he can call me a momma's boy, too. Yay."

Denise smacked AJ lightly upside the head before grinning and grabbing his face to kiss it soundly. "I'm so glad you came. I've missed you like you wouldn’t believe."

AJ didn't pull his face away. "I'd believe."

*

Sarah had started seeing a shrink during the tour, after the third time she had called, crying and barely breathing, keeping AJ up all night. At the end of that call, he had warned, "Baby, you need help. Either that, or I'm catching up with you in D.C. Your choice."

One of the wardrobe girls that Sarah had made friends with gave her the name of someone who would do long-distance therapy and Sarah had called to set up a phone appointment. By the time she had stopped touring, Sarah had been with the same doctor for nearly three months. The doctor had put her on anti-depressants about three sessions into their doctor-patient relationship. The first pills had caused Sarah to vomit on a regular basis and the second ones had caused headaches so bad she had trouble opening her eyes, but the third ones seemed to work out, on the side-effect front if nothing else. They had not yet begun to work on solving the actual problem when Sarah had gotten back to LA and had slept for three days straight waking only when AJ had made her awaken in order to get some food into her.

When she had finally awoken on her own, she had showered before driving out to the studio where AJ was recording. AJ had seen her walk in the sound booth and grinned toothily, mouthing, "Hi, sleepy."

She had mouthed back, "Hi, dopey."

The guys had taken a lunch break about an hour after she had arrived and AJ, in his excitement, had barely been able to coordinate his legs well enough to get through the door to where she was. He had kissed her long and hard until Nick's smacking him and yelling "Only you can prevent PDA!!" loudly over and over again finally convinced him to stop. He had turned around to smack Nick in retribution and, having accomplished his goal, swiveled back to beam at her, "I missed you."

"Oh yeah, me too," she had agreed. Kevin had nearly pushed the two of them out the front door, instructing, "Go have lunch somewhere, we'll take care of Brian's solos if you're not back on time."

He had taken her out to their favorite hole-in-the-wall, a middle-Eastern joint that was about the size of AJ's closet. Sarah had mentioned craving good schwarma throughout the last half of the tour. He had let her do all the talking, tell him things that she hadn't thought to mention over the phone about the last few cities, how completing her first tour had felt and how things with her shrink were going. In the middle of all this she had dropped the tidbit, "I started going to church again somewhere around Houston, with Nora, one of the makeup girls. She was Presbyterian, pretty hard core, if we weren't on a bus on Sunday, she was in church. So, I kinda asked if I could go along one Sunday and it was good, y'know? I mean, I don't think I'm Presbyterian." Sarah had been raised in a Catholic church by a mother who only took her children to church out of the vague notion that for some reason she should. None of the teachings had stuck much and Sarah had comfortably settled into generally believing there was something out there and not bothering herself too much about what it was. "But I like the routine of it, the…austerity. I don’t even know if that's the right word. There's just something comforting about holy ground, I guess." She had laughed. "I was pretty sure until about a month ago that those words would never come out of my mouth."

"We could look for a church," AJ had at one point in his life been devoutly Catholic, when he was young, around the same time that most children become devoutly something, regardless of dogma. He hadn't woken up one day having lost that intense belief, but it had drained from him, leaving him with a belief in the Lord, if not necessarily in the Church. "I wouldn't mind going with you."

"I thought I'd look in the phone book, see what's even around."

"Not Catholic. I don’t think I can go back."

She had shook her head. "Not Catholic, not Presbyterian. Hundreds more to check out. We'll find something."

She had sounded so sure, optimistic in a way that she hadn't been in so very long. AJ had reached out to grab her arm, kissing the inside of her wrist. "Of course we will."

*

Howie was already back by the time AJ opened the front door to the apartment and set his bag down in the entry way Sunday evening. "How was your trip?" he yelled in the direction of the kitchen, where there were clanking noises.

Nick poked his head out of the kitchen and informed him, "You're a fuck."

AJ shrugged, this was hardly news. "What'd I do this time?"

Nick's voice got oddly high-pitched, the way it did when he was imitating Howie, "AJ told me to tell you to drive back with me anyway." Nick's voice dropped back down into its regular register, "Ten hour drive. With a perfectly good airplane ticket waiting for me."

AJ walked toward Nick, "One, you hate flying, two, I bet Howie stopped and let you play in the ocean even though it's way too cold at this time of year and he really shouldn't have, but he's a dumbass when it comes to you, and three, you like road trips, they're a way of existence for you, so just shut up and tell me how Aaron and Angel are." AJ had reached Nick by this point and attempted to swallow him in a hug. AJ got swallowed instead, but it all worked out in the end.

"The twins are good, Angel's so damn pretty. Aaron tells me that him and Kobe have to be really careful monitoring all the guys that she comes in contact with. It drives her crazy but it makes me feel better. Aaron's totally everything I want to be when I grow up, so no problems there."

AJ pulled back from the hug. "Has Angel thought about what she wants to do?"

Angel and Aaron would both be graduating from bus school in seven months time. For Aaron it just meant another framed piece of paper to put next to the awards on his wall, but Angel had been considering being the first Carter child to go to college. Given that she was the only one of the five who validly had no interest in singing, acting or modeling, AJ got the sense that she sometimes felt it was the only way to distinguish herself. Nick shook his head. "Well, I think she has, but I'm not sure how she feels about being away from Aaron for long stretches of time like that."

AJ nodded. "She's got time, it’s not like she has to go next year, or anything. Is that Howie in the kitchen, or did you bring an imaginary friend back to my apartment?"

"Nah, Aaron was running short, I loaned all of those to him." Nick walked back into the kitchen, followed closely by AJ.

Howie glared playfully at him, "I didn't let him go in the ocean for very long."

AJ rolled his eyes. "Have a good holiday?"

Howie put the last dish he had been cleaning in the dishwasher and dried his hands on a towel. "Excellent. How's Denise?"

"Keeping Florida from self-destructing, as always. She sends her love, to both of you."

Howie eyed AJ, considering him. "You look better." Nick made an agreeing noise.

AJ motioned inelegantly with his head. "Four days with a momma intent on feeding you'll do that."

Nick suggested, "Maybe you should have stayed longer. Not like any of us have managed to get you to eat."

Howie didn't say a word, his eyes never leaving AJ. AJ shook his head. "You guys have managed other things. It's good to be back."

Howie walked over to hug AJ, "Didn't give you a welcome back hug."

AJ thought it felt like something more.

*

The pills hadn’t caused side-effects, but as it turned out, they hadn't worked either. Sarah's therapist had put her on a fourth pill that had made her so dizzy she had spent half her time with her eyes closed, her hands against the closest firm structure. The fifth attempt had caused her to vomit again and the third morning she was on them, when AJ had been sitting behind her on the tiled floor, stroking her back soothingly, she had admitted, "I can't really do this anymore."

AJ had hated the way defeat seem to hang on her, dripping off her shoulders. "That's okay, baby. We'll try other stuff. Kevin has a brother who's seriously into holistic medicine. I can call him, see if he has any suggestions."

"Herbs and vitamins and stuff?"

AJ handed her the glass of water he had brought in after she had run out of the kitchen. "Yeah, nothing artificial. Better for you."

Sarah had rinsed and spit, then flushed the toilet. She had turned to lean back against the cabinets. "Why are you still here?"

"I wanted to make sure you were alright."

"No." Sarah had taken a sip slowly, to make sure it would actually go down and stay down. "I meant that in a larger sense. Why are you still with me?"

AJ had scooted across the floor to where she was, resting a hand on each of her knees. "Because there's nowhere else I'd rather be. I don’t understand why you have to ask that."

"If I were you, I'd have been gone. Way gone. Gone with the wind, gone."

AJ had shaken his head. "Good thing we're who we are, I guess."

Sarah's lower lip had trembled, but she had held it together enough to say, "I'm no fun. And I yell at you for calling your friends to gloat over baseball scores."

She had screamed at him for nearly an hour the night before for calling Nick after the Marlins game rather than spending time with her. He had responded by not following her up to bed, but had given in when she had woken up screaming. She hadn't apologized and he hadn't had the heart to point it out. "Yeah, well, the next time you call me Carter-whipped, don't expect that there won't be some return screaming."

Sarah had smiled weakly, they both knew that was among the least ugly things she had said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said any of that. I don't even know why I did. Half the time I feel like I'm not in control of my own fucking brain. That's what I mean, though. I don’t understand why you hang around for all this."

"You hung around during some of my less-than-shining moments. And you had less reason to than I do now."

"I knew you could fix yourself. I don't. I don't know if it's the same with me."

"Well," AJ had lifted his hand to brush a few rogue strands of hair away from her face, "there you go. I have to stay. Somebody in the equation has to have faith, right?"

Sarah had turned her mouth into his hand, but hadn't kissed it, instead just breathing shortly against his palm. "It doesn't hurt."

*

The night that they finished up at the studio at nearly one in the morning, Howie and AJ climbed in the car they had come in together, glanced at each other, smiled conspiratorially and said, "Jellies."

Jellies was a locally owned 24-hour pancake house that was frequented more by prostitutes and University students than any other type of clientele, but those two sets of customers were very loyal and kept business booming. The guys had been led there on one of their first trips to LA by one of Kevin's old friends who was doing his graduate studies at UCLA and could afford to eat only at places sanctioned by the national union of starving students. Jellies fit in those guidelines without a hitch. One visit had been enough for all five of them to promise their first born children and a second visit to the owner, Mama J, a tiny but ebullient African-American woman who loved jazz and didn't know a thing about music outside of that genre. Which suited the guys just fine.

Mama J wasn't there when Howie and AJ arrived at slightly past one-thirty, but her son and her niece both were. Regardless of the fact that Jellies had a huge clientele, everyone on staff knew the regulars. Howie and AJ were regulars. Jeff, Mama J's son, came over. "Hey guys. The regular?"

Howie and AJ came in for breakfast at least once a week. Howie ordered the Belgian waffles with strawberry syrup and whipped cream. AJ got himself a coffee and an order of French toast. Howie scrunched up his face. "Not at this time of night, not for me. Just some coffee and a pancake, with the Vermont Syrup that I know Mama hides in the back for those who know enough to ask."

Jeff lifted an eyebrow. "Told you about that, did she? She must like you guys more than she lets on."

AJ smirked, "We're Mama's sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth children, and don’t you forget it. I'm gonna deviate as well and get eggs, sunny side up with toast and the strawberry preserves. And water." AJ would be up all night if he drank coffee at this point. There was a possibility he would be up all night anyway, but he didn't want to guarantee the situation.

"Sounds good," Jeff said with a small nod, "I'll be right back with all that." He slipped off to the next table of people who had just walked in. Midnight and a little past was one of Jellies's busiest hours.

Howie leaned back in the booth. "You sounded so good today."

AJ smiled appreciatively. "I can't believe we got that much done. I mean, for nearly six weeks we've been puttering around, at best, getting solos laid down, tracks half finished, whatever and then all of a sudden we all wake up this morning and get two full songs completely recorded. My brain is demanding to know what's going on."

There was still major tuning to do on both the songs and it would be a few more weeks before everybody was happy with everything that had been accomplished today, but it was a huge step in the right direction. Ceci came over to fill Howie's coffee cup, he thanked her and wrapped his hands around the cup, waiting for its warmth to filter up through his arms. "I think Kris is feeling better, for one thing. Kevin was about three times as mentally present as he's been ever since we started again."

AJ laughed. "You have got to be the most tactful person I have ever met."

Howie questioned him with a look and, "Oh?"

"Because, yeah, I'm sure Kev's really been the problem this past month and a half." AJ's sarcasm was thicker than the maple syrup Jeff had dropped at the table on his last round through the room.

"He was Aje, and if you'll notice, I did preface my statement with, 'for one thing.'"

AJ smiled up at Ceci as she dropped off their plates, she grinned back and ruffled his hair. Ceci may have been Mama's niece, but she was a mother in her own right four times over and never passed up an opportunity to show off her maternal instincts. AJ slathered the homemade preserves over his toast and crunched down. "I feel like I'm not up to speed."

"You're not, but we hardly expect you to be."

"I think the people who buy the album will."

"Why do you think we're taking so damn long, we all figure that either you'll catch up to speed at some point or we'll tweak it for so long that it won't matter." Howie spoke with his mouth full.

"I take it you've discussed this."

Howie shrugged. "Not really, you know how it is."

AJ thought about that, because much of the time that Backstreet had to convene without a member he knew he was the member they were talking around, but he had been there at times, when Caro had died, when Brian had been sick, so yeah, "Yeah, I do."

"You had to think about that?" Howie couldn't keep the amazement out of his voice.

"I'm so far from myself sometimes right now, it's a long distance phone call just to get hold of my own brain."

Howie smiled tightly and offered AJ his fork with a chunk of pancake speared at the end. AJ took him up on the offer.

*

Sarah had gone on St. John’s Wort at the suggestion of Kevin’s brother. He had wanted her to call every day to tell him how she was feeling, so it hadn’t taken too long before it became apparent that Sarah had lost all interest in eating while taking the supplement. After that the experimentation had gotten a little bit more exotic, mixing things like Kava Kava with Chinese herbs that AJ had never heard of before and had experienced more than a little trouble pronouncing. The first combination had put Sarah to sleep, the second hadn’t let her sleep, and the third one just hadn’t done anything for her. It had been like trying out prescriptions again, only with a more attentive doctor.

Sarah had been talking with Kevin’s brother every day for nearly two months when Kevin had informed AJ, “Junior’s invited both of you out to stay the next time I get out that way to see him. Or just the two of you, but I thought you might be more comfortable if I were there.”

AJ had agreed with Kevin. He liked all of Kevin’s older brothers immensely, but of all the siblings of the core-Backstreet family, they had always been the ones AJ had felt least at home around. “Just tell me when. Advance warning, though, no springing this on me three days before.” Kevin had a tendency to do that with things he thought the other guys might get nervous about. “And invite Sar yourself, she’ll get all edgy with me if I suggest it.”

AJ had walked into his house that evening to the sound of a one-sided conversation, “That’s really sweet of him.” Silence. “I dunno Kev, I mean, you barely get to see your family as it is, you really want us there?” Another pause. “Well, okay, if that’s what you both want.” Sarah’s voice had carried laughter when she had finished the conversation with, “Okay, okay. Fine, be that way. All right. Have a good night, say hi to Kris for me.”

AJ had heard the click of the phone meeting the receiver and moved into the TV room. “We gonna go visit Junior?”

“Sounds that way.”

"If you don’t wanna go and were just feeling a little swept away by Kev, I can-"

"Aje, honey, I'm a big girl. Regardless of how the last year has probably made it seem to you, I can stand up for myself." Sarah's words had been harsh but her tone understanding.

AJ had crossed to the sofa and sat down on the arm. "I know, but Kev can be intimidating even to the burliest of us sometimes."

Sarah had lifted an eyebrow while untying AJ's right sneaker. "Burly?"

AJ had glared. "You're supposed to stroke my ego here."

Sarah had reached up and stroked the crotch of his pants, "There, there baby," before untying the left sneaker and shucking both of them off.

When AJ had gotten his breath back under control he had started in with, "Sarah-"

But she had cut him off effectively, "I'm glad you're protective, it makes me feel loved. But I need to feel competent as much as I need to feel loved, so you're gonna have to step off a little bit, okay?"

AJ had drawn his feet in closer to himself in compliance. Sarah had pulled him back when he lost his balance and nearly fell backwards onto the floor.

*

Howie wasn’t an insomniac, but he would go through week-long periods, particularly during the holidays or near the anniversary of Caroline’s death, when he just couldn’t sleep at all. After the first couple of times he had gone to a doctor to get a sleeping prescription, but the pills had left him feeling groggy for days at a time, which he couldn’t handle even if they weren’t on tour, which they usually were.

Howie had tried buying intensely academic books that looked impressively boring, but instead of lulling himself to sleep, he had learned more than he had ever wanted to know about South American reptiles and legal procedures in civil court cases. Finally, in an act of pointless defiance against himself, Howie had decided that he might as well get something done if he wasn’t going to sleep and had taught himself how to knit. So it was that every once in awhile, Brian would get a new sweater in which the color pattern actually wasn’t offensive to the naked eye, Kevin and Kristin would get matching scarves or hats or something equally disgustingly cute, AJ would get covers for his golf clubs, and Nick would get mittens, since he complained that it was hard to find ones for hands as big as his.

At first the knitting had been erratic, mostly a late-night, since-I’m-not-sleeping-anyway sort of thing, but Howie had found it addictive and would hide two balls of yarn and his knitting needles in as many easy-to-reach places as possible, knitting in between interviews, before shows, on the buses, in the studio. He could hold full-fledged conversations, watch the TV, sing, and even sometimes walk while knitting. Howie made throws for himself, large and colorful and fluffy. They were folded up into the linen closet of the apartment, thrown over the sofa, draped over the bed.

AJ loved the throws, wouldn’t waste a moment in the evenings when they got home from recording before picking up the nearest one and wrapping himself in it, even if he wasn’t cold. At night, when he gave up on trying to sleep, he padded out of his room wrapped in the throw with different shades of blue working their way from the center out in various geometric patterns.

He would watch the TV, or bake ginger snaps that he had no intention of eating, but counted on Howie to devour. He was used to the silence of the apartment at night, the sound of his own footsteps against the plush carpeting. Which was how he knew something was different when he walked out one night to hear the rhythmic clicking of Howie’s needles. AJ stopped in the doorframe of the couch area to watch Howie's hands barely move, confidently weaving a pattern for some unnamed object together. Howie's eyes were intent on the television screen, seemingly unaware that his hands were involved in any kind of activity whatsoever.

AJ walked to the couch, the throw swishing noisily around him. Howie started a bit before his brain actually caught on to who was approaching. "Oh. Hey."

"Hey. Didn't mean to startle you." AJ laid down on the sofa with his head in Howie's lap. Howie lifted his arms a little and kept on knitting. He hadn't stopped even in the midst of jumping in shock. The clickety-clack of the needles was loud in AJ's ears. "Whatcha making?"

"Angie told me if she didn't get a Howie original in the near future there would be slaughter and mayhem and I would evidently have only myself to blame."

"Well, naturally," AJ conceded, "Angie's never at fault."

"Mm."

"Couldn't sleep?" AJ closed his eyes, lulled by the rhythm of the needles.

"Nah. Holidays. You know me."

"Yeah, I do. You going home?" It occurred to AJ that, living with Howie as he did, he should probably know something like this. He didn't let it bother him too much, as most of the ways in which he functioned with the other four weren't exactly what anyone would call mainstream.

"No. Mom and Dad are taking a vacation, Polly's running a DLF benefit dinner thing, Angie's spending it with her husband's family and John's a lost cause with being a host for anything. I was gonna invite myself along wherever you were going, and if that failed, fling myself onto one of the other guys' backs and refuse to let go until the season was over."

"I'll save the other guys the trouble. Stay with me."

The needles faltered for a mere second. "Whatcha doing?"

AJ opened his eyes, taken aback by the slight stumble in Howie's actions. "Dunno, haven't really been thinking that far ahead these days. I know I want you to do it with me, though."

"We'll figure something out."

AJ found the remote control on the couch behind him and turned the TV, still playing softly, off. "Mind if I fall asleep on you?"

"I'm not making too much noise?"

"It's reassuring. Or something."

Howie repositioned the ball of green yarn so that strings weren't drooping into AJ's face and then picked back up where he had left off. AJ snuggled deeper into the throw and let himself feel content for a few seconds, before drifting off into sleep.

*

On the flight home from Junior's, Sarah had expressed the hope that she could, "Hold on to this place, y'know? Just feel this calm more often, enough that it weighs out the other stuff."

Neither of them had spoken the facts out loud, most significantly the fact that it was easy to feel calm and sane when hundreds of miles away from the problems of home and the world that generally surrounded them, in the middle of gorgeous small-town Kentucky.

Instead Sarah and AJ had pretended to ignore the world and Sarah had started thinking, "Maybe it's time for me to go back to the studio."

On the surface, the idea hadn't been a bad one. By the time she could finish putting together a sophomore album it would have been a little over a year since the first one had dropped, which was good marketing. Underneath the surface there had been a million good reasons that AJ had thought he should have been enough of a husband to bring up, but he couldn't, not when she had been smiling with her whole face, eyes, cheeks and all. He had gotten to the point of recording those smiles in his head, in case they had stopped coming and all he could get were the half-hearted ones, all teeth and no soul.

He had been forced to leave her for most of her time in the studio, depending on phone calls and weekend visits from her in random cities to find out how the process was going. He had told himself, when her voice had shaken over the line and she had mumbled about dragging herself out of the bed in the morning despite her complete desire to stay there indefinitely, that maybe she had left her happiness at the studio; he had wanted so badly to believe that she had some stored away somewhere.

He had made sure the Boys would be finished touring for when her album broke so that he could be at all her events, smiling at her from the wings, trying to send some of his own pride, his own euphoria, silently into her. She had smiled for everyone else at those things, saving her smiles up for the people that she had thought most needed to see them. Which meant that unless he had been looking at her at the same time as someone else, someone supposedly less important, he had never gotten to see her smiles anymore, not even the ones he had known didn't go down through to her toes.

Still, late at night, when he had combed his fingers through her hair and wiped away tears from under her eyes with his thumbs, he had smiled for her and reminded her, "I love you, girlie."

"I treat you like shit." Sarah had pulled away, unconvinced.

AJ had followed her. "I get the real you, that's all I need."

"The real me is-"

"The real you is sad, and talented, and sweet, and I love her."

"I think I hold on for that."

"Then you're gonna be holding on forever." AJ had tightened his grip, pleading with himself to believe his own words.

*

AJ made himself wake up on Sunday, get out of bed, shower, dress in a suit, drive his car to the service and sit in a different spot than he and Sarah had basically claimed as their own in the two years that they had attended together. Kenny and Jeri, a couple who lived a couple of blocks away and had started coming to that particular meeting house on Sundays more out of convenience than out of faith and had ended up staying out of comfort and the slow regaining of a spirituality that wasn't disconnected from the rest of their lives, sat on each side of AJ. Jeri took AJ's hand and told him, "Good to see you, been awhile. We were worried."

Anna sat nearly across from him in the circle. She crossed the space to come over and kiss his cheek. "Hey."

AJ took their silent welcome, even the expectations of return that it carried with it, and let himself sink into its warmth, concentrating on that as he struggled, silently, to reach some kind of peace. He had long ago given up on being moved. AJ wasn't exactly an atheist, but he wasn't sure that meant he believed in anything so much as not believing that there wasn't anything. Now, more than ever, he wanted to believe, to know that something had been there, waiting for Sarah, that she was being made happy. He wouldn't think about the other possibilities, the hateful words of men who screamed from pulpits about unforgivable sins, damning sins, or even the more silent disapproval of the Quaker community, the failure to understand that what she had done hadn't been meant as an act of violence, this much AJ knew, but rather as an act of release. As much a release on him, on what she saw as a terrible dominion over him in herself as a release of the depression that had held her in its thrall without reason or rhyme.

AJ had once looked forward to Sundays; the way Sarah would use a different soap, wear a different kind of dress to separate that day from all the rest, demarcate it as divine. The way her silence next to him communicated itself in a way that was as close to holiness as AJ had ever been or wanted to be. The way she would make brunch afterwards and taste of French toast all day, taking away the memories of tasteless and even more meaningless wafers.

He knew though, in his wordless search for peace, that this was the wrong place to find it, that his belief in this place was as wrapped up in her as it was in anything omnipresent and merciful. There had been more peace in his sleepless nights, a room away from Howie, whose breathing was loud and reassuring throughout the apartment. This silence was too much, not oppressive but not helpful and when it came to an end, AJ struggled to his feet, smiling at those who had greeted him and nearly ran to the door, ready to get back to the apartment and make himself anything other than French toast.

*

He had left her once. She had been on tour at the time, a mostly clubs and small arenas tour, but with her as the main act. He had come to visit her three weeks into it. She had stopped taking the supplements that she and Junior had continued to explore for nearly a year a few weeks before the tour, and was suffering from depression that had more to do with a loss of hope than withdrawal, as the supplements hadn’t been doing much for her anyway, or she would have stayed on them. She had also been exhausted from the twenty-four hour a day daily experience that is touring and when AJ had shown up at her hotel, he had ordered room service and tucked her safely in bed, over her protestations of wanting to be awake for as much of his visit as possible.

She had woken up as worn out as she had been before she had fallen asleep but with more energy to fight and had taken out her frustration at never feeling well, her jealousy at the way he seemed to have gone down the path that she was taking then and found his equilibrium anyway, on him. "I guess you like me better when I'm sleeping, huh?"

AJ had responded warily, well used to that particular biting tone and the possibility of what could follow one bitter comment. "I like you better when you don't look half-dead."

"Right, because as AJ McLean's wife, I'm a physical paragon to millions of pre-pubescent girls everywhere."

"I came to see you, are we gonna do this for the entire week?"

"Why? You wanna go back to your Boys? They more fun than I am?"

He had stayed up most of the night before making sure she didn’t wake scared or crying, the way she did so often at home, so it had been his exhaustion speaking when he had retorted, "Yeah, y'know what? That's exactly what I want," and had walked out of the door, taken a taxi to the airport and flown standby back to where the Boys were preparing for the second leg of their tour.

Not even half-way through the flight, he had woken out of a take-off induced snooze and wished he could take it back. Out of all the times when she had screamed at him for hours or refused to talk to him over mistakes he hadn't really made, it was such a minor spat, nothing really, and he had known that she was petrified of him leaving. He had picked up the in-flight phone and ran his credit card through it. He had dialed her cell and prayed that she had it on. She had sounded sniffly when she had picked up, and AJ had wished there was some way to physically harm himself without alarming the other passengers on the plane.

"Hey, hey. It's me. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have stormed out like that." AJ had been tired of apologizing, but at least this time he had truly felt himself to be in the wrong. Most of the time it had felt like a mollifying tactic that rarely, if ever, worked.

Sarah had stifled a sob. "No, baby, it's me who's sorry. I thought-" Sarah had broken off, her vocal chords evidently paralyzed by what she had been about to say. "I thought you were gone."

AJ had been even more tired of getting apologized to. Part of him had thought that maybe this was because he really already knew she was sorry, he wouldn't have stayed with her thinking she meant the things she said and did, but part of him had just thought that he was tired of telling himself later on, 'she's always sorry afterwards.' It hadn't been fair to him, but it hadn't been fair to her either, which was why he had answered, "Nah girl. I'm here. On a plane, but, you know, the spirit me. Standing right by you."

"Don’t leave me Aje, I'm begging here, okay? I need you."

AJ had considered his next words carefully before saying them, needing to know that he was telling the truth, both for his and her sake. "I think I have a better reason for not leaving you."

"Oh yeah?"

"It's a secret, you can't tell."

"My lips are sealed."

AJ had stage-whispered into the phone. "I'm still mad-crazy in love with you."

*

AJ got home from the service to the scent of chile rellenos casserole, the recipe of which, as the guys had been told time and again, was a Dorough family secret. AJ thought it was the perfect substitute for French toast and he hugged Howie tightly. Howie let himself be hugged and didn't ask how the service had gone and AJ remembered exactly why when he thought of his best friends, Howie's name always came just a nano-second before the rest of the guys'.

AJ went to his room and changed into loose-fitting pants and a t-shirt, readying himself to spend the day lounging, maybe writing, if he felt up to it, which he rarely did of late. When he came back, Howie was gingerly setting the piping hot casserole dish down on a heat-resistant pad in the middle of the table. AJ grabbed the glasses that had been set on the table. "Iced tea okay?" Leighanne had made her famous lemon iced tea and farmed out gallon jugs to each of the guys. Howie and AJ were told they had to share.

"Sounds good."

AJ poured them each a glass and brought the glasses back to the table, where Howie was scooping a healthy portion of his masterpiece onto AJ's plate. AJ sat down, fiddled with his fork and admitted, "I don’t think I belong there anymore."

Howie dug into his portion and blew gently over the tip of his fork to cool the piece he had extracted. "That's okay. You had to go to find out."

AJ played with his food a bit. "Yeah."

Howie gave him a very specific I-made-this-food-and-you-are-damn-well-going-to-eat-it glare. "It's okay to leave things behind, Aje."

AJ forced his first bite down. Once past the first bite, he was surprised to find himself considerably hungry. "I think I may be bad at doing that."

"You just don't have a lot of practice. The last friends you left behind were people you knew more on an acquaintance-level in high school than anything else. Most people your age have done shit like graduated from high school and gotten jobs, or gone to college or something that forced them to move on, but you and Nick kinda got fucked over on that particular life-lesson."

"I wouldn’t trade you guys for that." Which was saying a lot, because as much as he loved performing, there were very few days were AJ didn't wonder about different decisions he could have made in his life. For all his talk about it, he really wanted to be able to hang a piece of paper on his wall that declared him a college graduate, wanted to know what it was like to leave home at an age where you were actually considered autonomous and learn what it meant to live on your own. AJ doubted it was as glorious as he sometimes envisioned it as, but still, it was the unknown, and he was known to give into the-grass-is-always-greener syndrome as much or more than the next guy. But he meant what he had said: given the choice between fulfilling his daydreams and keeping the guys, he would pick that latter every time.

"We wouldn't trade you for anything either," Howie reminded him softly.

AJ knew he shouldn't have to be reminded of something that simple to understand and know, but that one fact became complex in his mind, where it was blocked by memories of the things he'd done to the guys, the things he'd said to Nick while drunk that nearly drove Nick into alcoholism himself, the way he'd treated Kevin and Brian's wives with a disrespect that still made him nauseated just to think about it, the times that he had toyed with Howie, manipulating the older man's loneliness for his own selfish ends. AJ was endlessly grateful that Howie had kept his wits about him enough to generally just push AJ into the bathroom and make him drink water until he either vomited or sobered up.

"Aje, you told me about a month ago that you missed her even though you knew there had been the good and the bad, that you would take all of that to have her back."

AJ nodded, acknowledging that those had been his words.

"Do you think we're so shallow that if you went, we would only miss the good parts of you?"

"I wouldn't blame you."

"You're not answering my question."

"I think…I think that you guys are special when it comes to me. That you've been around me for so long you've forgotten what anything else feels like. Stockholm Syndrome, or something."

"Given that theory, if this were a romance novel, I'd be getting some right about now."

AJ looked up from where he was staring at his plate to gape at Howie.

Howie shrugged, a goofy smile on his face. "Just sayin'."

AJ snorted, shook his head and kept to himself his opinion that Howie never 'just said' anything.

*

Sarah had scheduled herself a week with no shows in the middle of the tour at the suggestion of both her psychiatrist and Junior. She had worked it so that she would be in Atlanta the week that the Boys played there and AJ hadn't experienced too much resistance to the idea of taking a week off of the tour themselves. It was only a month into their tour, but a week in Atlanta meant that Brian could chill at his house with Leighanne for a whole week and Kristin could catch up to them and actually spend time with Kevin, Nick could fly out and work on the second solo album that he had been slowly patching together and Howie could meet up with family. The place and timing had worked for everyone, so Sarah and AJ had gotten their week just to be each other's husband and wife.

AJ had kicked it off by telling her, "Fuck, you're gorgeous, have I seen you somewhere?"

Sarah had replied, self-effacingly, but not bitterly, "I sing a little. I married the right guy."

AJ had leaned in and said, for her ears only, "I married the right girl."

He had made love to her against the door of the hotel suite they had rented for the week, his hand pillowing her head so that it would not hit the wood. She had moaned in all the right places and faked an orgasm. AJ had frowned, "Don't do that. I know, okay? Don’t…lie."

Sarah had bent her head and licked along the line of his shoulder. "I just don’t want you to think it's you. It's not."

AJ had lead her to the bedroom of the suite, laying both of them down on top of the perfectly made bed, facing each other. "You okay?"

She had looked him in the eyes and answered, "Just tired."

It had been like listening to another 'orgasm.' AJ had given up. "Go to sleep, babe."

*

"She shows up in my dreams, sometimes," AJ talked without answering whatever question Sherry had asked him. They both knew it didn't matter. Eventually, something would be communicated between the two of them. "Mostly not a starring role, more a cameo. I mean, the dreams are weird, right? So she'll be like, making orange juice out of old shoes on the corner of the only street that I distinctively remember from Amsterdam and that's only because one of the guys passing out advertisements tried to get Nick, who was almost three at the time, to participate in one of the live nude shows they have there."

Sherry looked mildly impressed. "Literally, that's one you've had?"

"Yeah. And the time where she was the choirmaster for a choir made up completely of geese and flying squirrels. I've been trying to block that one, but no such luck as of yet."

"Are they frequent?"

"About as frequent as sleeping is for me."

Sherry eyed him. AJ shrugged. "Still hit and miss on that. Better than it was."

Sherry let it go. "What are your thoughts about her like when you're awake?"

It wasn't the first time she had asked the question, but AJ was smart enough to realize that his answer had changed nearly every time she had asked it and the point of the exercise was mostly to make him stop and think about where exactly he was in his brain. "Erratic but constant. There's a new vending machine at the studio that is purely fruit juice and I can't stop getting the Dole strawberry-banana thing because that was her favorite, she got it every time she went to the grocery store. I don't even like it that much, but seriously, I'm compelled, my hand refuses to push any other button. I walk by stores and see something she would like and I'm half way to the register when I remember that the process of giving it to her is really more than I'm willing to go through with. Which is hard. Because at first I did want to follow her, I did. I still want to be with her, but I'm not…well, I'm not suicidal, and I recognize on some level that that's probably a good thing but it's hard to get up in the morning and think that maybe I want to move on with my life, maybe, and not feel guilty about that."

Sherry waited. She knew him well enough to know what was the end of a thought and what was just a pause to consider. He didn't disappoint her. "It's back and forth though. I mean, it's only been a little over two months, so I guess that's okay. Howie still freaks out about Caro sometimes. He…when she first, well, when he came back to us after the funeral, he kinda took the meaning of quiet to a new and unforeseen level for the longest time, and when we finally got him to talk, he was so afraid that, I dunno, we were gonna come down on him for still being upset and this was only a month or so after she had died. That's why, in my head, I know, I know that I can still be not okay about this, that the guys aren't going to be mad and that it's healthy, grieving takes a long time, yada yada, I've read all the pamphlets in your waiting room about this. And I don't think I would feel okay if I was back to normal now, it'd be such a betrayal, but all these things get wrapped up in my head and I end up feeling completely unsure of what I'm supposed to be feeling or doing."

Sherry narrowed her eyes. "And what do you do when that happens?"

"Miss her. I just miss her."

"Then maybe that's all you're 'supposed' to be doing."

AJ twisted his mouth up. "Don't get all mocking on me." His words were playful to let her know that he understood.

"Seriously, AJ, you think too much. Just let this happen. Not to the point where you can't function, but don't rush yourself, or talk yourself out of taking what you need from life. And stop with the guilt, it's not helping anyone."

"It's nice how everything sounds so easy when I'm sitting in this chair inside this office."

Sherry smiled knowingly. "Well, you know what they say about setting up a practice."

AJ tilted his head, suspecting that he probably should not be humoring her.

"Location, location, location."

AJ groaned and reminded himself to trust his instincts more often.

*

Sarah had caught up with the Boys at the end of her tour and spent the last month and a half of the Boys's tour making AJ's bus cozy when he wasn't there, and hanging on to him like a particularly strong lemur when he was. He hadn't minded, they didn't get to spend enough time together for AJ to even want to complain about being stifled by her presence when she was around. He hadn't been able to imagine a point when he ever would be around her enough to get tired of her, even when they were old and swinging together on their front porch was the only thing either of them did all day.

She had read aloud to him at night, everything from pulpy airplane-ride suitable novels to Sartre to the New York Times. AJ hadn't always understood the stuff she had read, but he had liked the cadences of her voice, the way she would stop and consider something she had read, playing it over in her mind and he had known that she was filing it away. Sarah had always found ways to use what AJ considered to be the most trivial of facts or concepts in the most unexpected ways. She had been smart in the least flashy of ways, seeing connections between things that few other people saw without the need to point out her superior knowledge. Sometimes AJ had asked her what she was thinking about when she would stop at the end of a paragraph. At first when he had done this she had looked guilty, "You really wanna know?"

"I asked, didn't I?"

And Sarah had broken her thoughts down for him, so that he could follow them. He had known her train of consciousness hadn't sounded like that in her head and, at the same time that he had wished he could have heard it that way, been that far inside of her, he had appreciated her efforts to allow him that close, make sure he was actually with her, instead of just following along behind. She had never made him feel stupid, even though they had both known that of the two of them, she was far more traditionally book-smart. Instead, she had a tendency to boost his confidence in his intellect by laughing at his jokes, seriously considering his thoughts, coming back with her own thoughts on the things that worried him. He had never caught her acting like he was just a little too slow on the uptake or a little too shallow about a conversation topic and AJ could only imagine that that was a result of her never having done such a thing.

Other than late at night, when she had pulled out whatever book they were in the middle of, Sarah had been quieter than usual after coming back to him that time. She hadn't been completely silent, just subdued. AJ had tried pulling her out of it, asking her questions, poking light enough fun at her that she would respond but not be hurt, but mostly she just laughed as much as expected and tickled AJ until he begged for mercy. He had let her be after awhile, assuming that she would become talkative again in her own good time, when the residual loneliness and stress of her tour wore off.

He had been a bit taken aback by her pressing need to be near him physically, optimally touching him whenever he was close enough. Sarah had never been one to shy away from his touch, but he had never felt the sense of urgency that was behind each hug, each peck on the cheek, each brushing of their fingers since her return. His own need had grown in conjunction with hers and before he had known it Nick and Brian had been making up rhymes about Sarah and him accidentally getting stuck together in tragic tour bus accidents. The rhymes had been clunky and AJ had ignored them far easier than he had ignored Howie's concerned, "You guys okay?"

But when AJ had pressed her fingertips to his lips, or when she had laid her palm over AJ's bare kneecap at night, the other hand holding the spine of a book open, urgency or no, everything had felt okay. Everything had felt perfect, for AJ. So he had replied to Howie's concern with, "It just feels good to have her near me. With me."

*

AJ was watching intently as Nick laid down one of his solo tracks when Howie plunked down next to him and held out a bottle of Dole Kiwi-Strawberry. AJ took the bottle and shook it, "This isn't my flavor."

"No, but I think you might like it."

AJ looked over at Howie, who was intent on drinking half his bottle of orange juice in one go. AJ sipped at his own drink. It was good, sharper than the banana-strawberry. "Thanks."

Howie nodded. "You're welcome. Kid's getting better about the emoting."

AJ looked back into the recording booth. Nick was still on the stool he had started on, which at this stage in the process was pretty darn impressive. "Yeah."

"What do you want for Christmas dinner?"

AJ could appreciate the way Howie always managed to slip conversations that had the potential to be monumental into the middle of other, completely insignificant conversations. "Chocolate chip cookies."

"I didn't ask what you wanted as an appetizer."

AJ snickered. "I hadn't really thought about it."

Howie was kind enough not to mention the fact that nowadays, if AJ thought about things that were happening the next day it was something of a miracle. "I talked to your mom, she said you really liked sticky sweet potatoes when you were a kid."

"Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly what my mom said. More like, 'Kid fucking ate me outta house and home with his damn sweet potato fetish,'" AJ trilled in a high falsetto.

"If I ever have a conversation with your mom that involves the word 'fetish' I probably won’t be able to face either of you for several months. But she might have been slightly more descriptive than I lead you to believe in my earlier statement."

"Mmhmm," AJ drew the sound out.

"So, sticky sweet potatoes for you, and cranberry Jell-O thingamajigger for me-"

AJ interrupted with, "Is that the scientific name for it?"

Howie was nonplussed, "Yes. We still don't have a main dish."

"We could be horrifically original and cook a turkey or bake a ham, we're neither of us herbivores," AJ pointed out.

Howie hedged. "I thought. Well, I was thinking maybe if we did something different this year, that, well, y'know, it would make it separate from other years. Something we could remember without being forced to remember everything else."

"Something we could do without being forced into that," AJ added on, understanding perfectly. He thought back, for a moment, to the way Howie had pleaded with AJ to call Paula and tell her that Howie couldn't make it for Christmas that first year. Howie had told AJ that he could use any excuse so long as he didn't end up having to go home. AJ had stayed with him until Howie had calmed down, agreed to go. AJ wondered if he would have done the same thing, knowing what he now knew. He said suddenly, illogically, "Thank you for doing this."

Howie's eyes flickered with confusion for a mere moment before they cleared. "It's not a big deal."

"I was speaking in larger terms."

"So was I."

*

Sarah had pleaded with him when he was at his most vulnerable, freshly fed and unbearably horny, "Let's stay home for awhile."

They had been in LA for a week, but AJ had been scheduled to head back out again to do a couple of appearances for the American Diabetes Association. "Sar, c'mon, this is shit I can't cancel, you know that."

She had, AJ had seen the knowledge in her eyes. She had asked dully, resignedly, "Someone's always more important, huh?" and AJ had wondered why he had missed being yelled at.

"Baby. You know that's not true," AJ had stated emphatically.

Sarah had gotten up to collect the dishes from the table. "Sometimes."

AJ had beaten her to the sink, turning the water on quickly and yelping when it burned the fingers he ran under it experimentally. Sarah had flicked the faucet off and pressed on the refrigerator door mechanism, spilling three cubes of ice in different directions on the kitchen floor, but capturing one to hold to his fingers. "Can you come with me?"

Sarah had fixed her eyes on one of the stray cubes, melting down into nothingness. "I'm tired of being everywhere but here."

"It's only another couple of weeks." AJ had kept his hands still, not pulling away until the last of the ice was dripping through their fingers, splashing the tiles several feet below.

"It always is, Aje. Just a few more weeks after the month before which came right after the previous two months of being everywhere in creation. I want to stay home with my husband for a little while. Just a month, okay? Four weeks, right in a row."

"Okay." AJ had turned back to the sink, pouring a bit of soap onto the sponge and scrubbing for all his worth. "But after this, Sar. I can't pull out now. After this I'll cancel everything for the next month, I'll talk with the guys about covering for anything that's not right here, and I'll hole up with you for an entire thirty-one days."

"You promise?"

AJ had turned the water back on, more cautiously this time. "I promise."

"You promise like you promised the ADA?"

AJ had faced away from the sink, looking directly at her, and had said, over the sound of running water. "No, I promise you like I promised my wife."

"And that's better?" Sarah's expression hadn't given away anything.

"That's better." AJ had gone back to fighting ordinary household grease.

*

When Howie had told AJ that they were having sweet n' crunchy chicken for Christmas dinner, AJ had eyed Howie doubtfully and inquired, "You know how to make something called sweet n' crunchy chicken?" because Howie was a quick learner, but hadn't been taught much up until now.

"Well, not yet," Howie had enunciated each syllable of his words.

"But?" AJ had prompted.

"But Mama J said she'd teach me."

AJ's jaw had dropped open and he had just barely managed to form words with a dysfunctional mouth, "Mama J told you she'd give you that recipe?"

Mama J's sweet n' crunchy chicken was legendary. It wasn't served at the restaurant, not really fitting into the whole pancake-house genre, but every one of her regulars had heard Mama's kids or nieces or nephews ramble on about it at some point.

"She said she'd teach me to make it."

AJ had stayed silent, waiting.

"It might have taken a little convincing."

Which AJ had well known meant that Howie had spilled every last detail of the last nine years of their lives right into her well-intentioned lap. When AJ came home the afternoon before Christmas eve from running last minutes errands and caught a whiff of sugar baking slowly into tender chicken pieces, he forgave Howie whatever indiscretions the older man had committed to get his way in this instance. "Fuck that smells heavenly, D."

Howie grinned at AJ over the marshmallows he was whipping for the sweet potatoes. "I hope it tastes as good. You get the cinnamon?"

AJ dutifully dug around in the grocery bag and handed over the requested item. "You need help?"

"There's a whole bunch of fruit in the crisper drawer that I need cubed, can you take care of it?"

AJ put the groceries that needed to be refrigerated or frozen away in their proper spots before grabbing at the stash of fruit that Howie had indicated would be waiting for him. He set to peeling what needed to be peeled, washing what needed to be washed and cubing the prepared products. He enjoyed the repetitive, meditative aspect of the work, throwing his mind into the motion of the knife, staying just aware enough not to cut himself.

Beside AJ, Howie was more active, measuring ingredients, strategically placing items in dishes, stirring and whipping and layering, but equally silent.

When AJ finished his task it took him a moment to realize it. When his brain had caught up to his body, AJ moved slightly so that he was in back of Howie and wrapped his arms around the slighter man. Howie, surprised, tensed suddenly before relaxing into AJ's hold. "Hey, you okay?"

AJ squeezed tighter, more tightly than could possibly be comfortable for Howie and yet not tightly enough for AJ's own comfort. "I haven't been able to enjoy silence like that in so long." Almost three months, AJ almost added, but didn't because Howie kept track of things in his own way and would know how long it had been.

"Merry Christmas, Aje." Howie's words were tightly forced out, just like his breath. AJ managed to loosen his arms a little.

*

AJ had called Sarah every day while he was away. She had always been there when he had called, and he had resisted the urge to ask her if she was waiting by the phone.

She had told him, "Can't seem to get up the motivation to go out much," anyway.

He had timed his calls so that he would have at least an hour; it had taken awhile to talk Sarah into being particularly responsive. He had ended up doing most of the talking in the end, not wanting her to feel frustrated at her inability to express herself. When he had gotten back, he had a feeling he had probably been even more relieved than she was. It had been early evening but she had already been donning pajama pants and a loose tank with no bra. He had shaken his head and pulled her toward the shower, stripping both of them as they went.

When the water had hit her skin she had jumped, almost as if unaccustomed to the sensation and AJ had gentled her, smoothing his hands along her sides, settling them on her hipbones. "Hey."

She had looked straight at him and AJ wondered if maybe the water had woken her up, since after a moment she actually seemed to see him. She had smiled. "Hi you. You're back."

"I am." He had closed her eyes with his fingers before soaping up her hair and rinsing the shampoo out. His hands had skimmed along her skin, over the muscles in her legs, the vertebrae, her breasts, lathered heavily in body wash. She had accepted his ministrations with a few quiet gasps and very little else.

When he had turned the water off, dried her, led her into her closet and put her in one of his favorite of her outfits, she had tilted her head. "What are you doing?"

"Taking you out."

"No, I don't-" She had shaken her head, "You just got back."

"Yep, it's a special treat. A date, if you will. You, me, the nice waiter. Maybe a bag of popcorn in a dark theater with plushy stadium seats and armrests that rise, later."

Sarah had eyed him doubtfully. "You wouldn't rather we just stayed in? I could make you better popcorn here. And we could order in a movie while it was popping."

AJ had ran the pointer finger of his right hand from the hollow in her neck to the place where the V-neck of her shirt hid the rest of her chest. "I wouldn't get to show you off, then."

"I think everyone knows you've got me, Aje." Sarah's comment had almost ended on a snicker.

"I want to remind them. Sar, please, c'mon, we'll have fun." AJ hadn't remembered a time when he had been too proud to beg with her. He hadn't thought that then would be a good time to pick up such a policy of being.

Sarah's mouth had twisted indelicately. "Okay, fine."

AJ had begun to grin.

"But only because you said the magic word."

*

Howie was in AJ's room when he rolled over and groaned, "I ate way too fucking much and you didn't stop me, you are not my friend," upon waking up.

Howie processed this. He stood up to begin walking out of the room. AJ saw the package in Howie's right hand. "Wait, I might be persuaded to rethink that."

Howie turned around and tossed the gift at AJ. "Merry Christmas, bitch."

"You too, honey." AJ's fingers worked clumsily at the tape on the package. "I got you one. It's in the top drawer of the dresser in my closet."

Howie got up to find his gift. AJ gave up on unwrapping his neatly and ripped impatiently at the paper. The book inside had a spine so worn AJ could barely make out the words that had once graced its surface and its cover was soft from the amount of times human hands had caressed it, but its pages were all there and unbent and AJ recognized it on sight. "I've read it," AJ said, slightly breathless and unsure of how else to respond.

"No you haven't," Howie corrected him.

"Well," AJ shrugged, fingering the embossed lettering spelling out 'The Hobbit' on the front of the book fondly. Howie had read it over and over after Caroline had died until AJ had asked him what was so wonderful about it and Howie had read it aloud to AJ, a little bit each night, sometimes only a page when they were tired. It had taken them months to finish. Months in which Howie had healed.

"Read it to yourself this time," Howie instructed him.

AJ considered Howie for a moment. "I'll give it back, if you want."

"If I'd wanted that, I would have loaned it to you and gotten you a different Christmas present."

AJ accepted the sentiment for the moment and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

Howie grabbed AJ's arm. "Where're you going?"

"Shower."

"You're not gonna watch me open my gift?"

AJ shrugged uncomfortably and Howie let go of him, frowning. Howie flipped the envelope he had found with his name scribbled on it open without taking his eyes off AJ until he had to in order to read the card. He recognized it immediately as the form greeting DLF sent to people who had had donations made in their name. He didn't bother to read the words, skipping down to the number at which point he choked on his own tongue. "A. J."

AJ dug his heel into the carpet. "She left me everything." Sarah hadn't been as rich as AJ, but she had hardly been poor either. She had earned enough on her tours and on the royalties from the songs she had written on each of her albums to make her an independently wealthy woman. "Everything." AJ didn't want any of it.

"This is-" Howie checked the number a second time, just to be sure, "Unreal. I mean, this is more than we generally get out of any three grants in a year's time."

AJ leaned down and kissed Howie's cheek. "Merry Christmas, D."

*

AJ had promised Sarah a month at home with no interruptions and had told the guys, "If anybody wants us in that time, it's either you four or sending Nick in as a consolation prize, but seriously, I need some time with her." Nick had thrown a cushion at AJ's head and Kevin and Brian had both been a bit fussy about the fact that they had been putting their careers ahead of their wives for several years, but after a few moments, AJ had gotten everyone to nod their heads and agree, which had been good enough for him.

There had been a point in time, long before Sarah, when AJ had dreaded anything that made him stay in one place for longer than it took to tie his shoes. He had outgrown his need to be constantly in motion at some point along the way, probably in a bus on a road in the middle of the world. She had cemented his desire to actually stay in one place, though. To settle down and claim somewhere as his own and then viably want to return to it, time and again. She had been the one to beg four weeks out of his life, but he had not really felt like putting up much of a fight.

Being in the house with her had felt more comfortable than being on stage, and AJ had never known that to be true of anything before. Even when she had been in a quiet phase, or unable to concentrate on much of anything from a thirty-minute sitcom to a game of checkers, AJ had known that he was supposed to be there with her, telling her it was all right, he hadn't been enjoying the game much anyway. He had never exactly lied to her -- she was the center point of those activities for him -- if she hadn't been immersed he hadn't really sunk so deep into them himself.

There had been interruptions in AJ's ease. Her temper tantrums had been hard to take, her tears harder and her frustrated, desperate silence the worst. She had always come back to him, though, the woman he had married, the edge to her humor growing ever sharper as she would look up at him after days of stunted communication and say, "I'm thinking of going back for a degree in psychology. Couples counseling. Good plan, you think?"

He would make out with her with no intent to sleep with her and answer, "You can do anything you want."

Her tired, "We're both crazy," had only prompted his, "Takes one to know one." She had bitten his shoulder with every intention to drag him down to the floor and have her wicked way with him.

He had let her, willing to do anything for those increasingly short intervals of time when he could still read any emotion beyond despair in her body, see something he recognized as spirit in her eyes.

*

"I," Nick announced, with much waving of his hands and little fanfare, "am throwing a schwank New Years' Party."

Leighanne perked up at this news, trying to communicate her joy without moving in any way. Brian had spent ten minutes just getting her to where she wasn't nearly crying from back pain. "Can I be in charge of decorations?"

Nick beamed at her but answered sternly, "Only if you promise to make Brian do all the actual work."

Leighanne stuck out her hand and Nick shook it gingerly, not wanting to jar her. Brian sighed dramatically, long ago consigned to his fate and not at all unhappy about it.

"So who's coming to this big ol' schmancy party?" Kevin wanted to know. "New Years' is in a week, people who are not us are going to have plans."

"I saved you guys for last, being that you're a sure thing." Nick smiled angelically. "I've been inviting for a month," Nick counted off on his fingers, "Aaron, Angel and Leslie. Beje and Ginger already had plans," Nick pouted, but continued, naming a sizable list of people that he considered himself to be friendly with, if not close friends. There were people that he had worked with on his solo albums, other singers, people who helped him out with his Ocean Campaign and at the end he tacked on, "And maybe this girl, Lara, because we keep seeing each other at basketball games, and um. She's nice."

Nick was blushing, so AJ rushed to capitalize on his weakness. "You keep seeing her at Laker's games? I thought you had a box."

"I do." Nick answered cryptically.

Howie, who was trying not be hurt by the fact that evidently this had been going on for awhile, at least most of the basketball season, and Nick hadn't seen fit to say anything until now, prompted, "And?"

"She has one next to me. She's a freelance IT consultant with several larger firms down in the Valley. Which means there's basically no chance of her flirting it up for the money. Plus, I don’t think she knows who I am."

Kristin wrinkled her nose. "How old is this girl, Nick?"

"Twenty-seven," Nick answered confidently, as though he'd expected all this. AJ had to recognize, internally at least, that Nick probably had and that's why it had taken so long for him to say something. Not to mention the fact that Nick had long ago learned his lesson in being cautious about falling for a woman.

"Geez, Nick." Kevin whistled, low and long. "You found yourself an ambitious one. Probably insanely smart, too."

Nick chewed his lower lip for a second. "Too good for me?"

AJ was pretty sure he caught his gasp before it became audible. Brian wasn't so lucky. AJ's, "Why would you say that?" got jumbled up with the other's similar reactions.

Nick shrugged, undaunted by the deluge of words coming at him. "Just saying. I mean, she doesn't want my money and she doesn't want my name attached to hers-" Nick stopped and shrugged again. "I just don’t think I'm that much of a prize without either of those…" Nick snapped his fingers a few times, searching for the right word.

"Incentives?" Kristin supplied softly.

"Yeah. Those."

AJ sighed and looked around him. Kevin and Brian had both found girlfriends too early into the whole Backstreet phenomenon to have understood that feeling and Howie had strenuously avoided dating in favor of casual, short romantic liaisons, not having found anyone he was willing to exert the effort necessary to hide and keep mollified about having to be hidden. AJ, though, AJ understood what Nick was saying perfectly. Even knowing Sarah had her own baggage AJ had spent most of his marriage marveling at the fact that she had picked him on his own merits. Luckily, Nick was AJ's friend, and if he wasn't exactly hot for Nick, AJ at least knew exactly what this woman saw in him. "She thinks you're sweet and that you don't ask for too much out of her. She knows you have something you like in common and that, if nothing else, she can fill up an hour talking to you about her favorite basketball moments. She thinks you're cute because you have kind eyes and a strong smile."

AJ said the words fluently, with no trace of how much they made him miss his wife, miss the first person in the world who had looked at him in a romantic way and made him feel more than just adequate. Sarah had been given to making him feel more than merely fantastic. Looking at Nick's unsure eyes, AJ practically willed the universe to show his friend what that feeling was like, if not with this girl, then with the next.

Nick toyed with the fraying patch at the knee of his jeans. "So you guys think it's a good thing that I invited her?"

Brian, Kevin, Howie, Leighanne and Kristin all whipped their eyes from where they had been fixating upon AJ back to Nick and gave a varied array of responses that basically all corresponded to, "Uh, yeah."

*

She had said goodbye to him. Not with her words, which had sounded the same the last night of her life as they had every night before that, but with her body. They had made love for hours, moving restlessly from room to room, caught up in each other. AJ had tried counting the strands of her hair at one point, sifting them through his fingers. She had laughed at him, pulling away to go down on him at the same time, her laughter vibrating around his cock and up through him to the base of his skull.

AJ hadn't even been sure how they had made it to the studio, but she had left oil there, as she had left other toys strewn about the house when he had gone out earlier that evening to pick up some groceries. Her eyes had been alive and loving and wistful in a way that he hadn't understood when she had greeted him at the door, setting the bag of groceries casually in the kitchen, not really caring if anything spoiled. "C'mon," she had beckoned, "I have a surprise."

His studio had been full of machines that glowed in the dark, red and green and sometimes even blue. When he had rubbed the massage oil slowly and painstakingly into every last patch of available skin on her naked body, the lighting had swirled and come together on the canvas that was Sarah, and she had resembled a sort of post-modern Monet. AJ had covered her with his body, smudging the paint, transferring it to his own skin.

There had been frozen Godiva chocolate in the kitchen, which Sarah had warmed in her mouth and then fed to AJ; cold butterscotch sauce that she had licked from the back of his knees and along the length of his spinal cord and used as an excuse to get him in the shower, where he had taken his time bringing her to orgasm, until she had been gasping from equal amounts pleasure and cold.

She had pushed him into his lounging chair before turning, sliding down on him, their damp skin sealing her back to his chest. He had splayed his fingers over her stomach, the tips brushing against the bottom edge of her ribcage. His hand had swept down to her thigh, splayed open, lying on the chair's armrest. His other hand had swept her hair to the side so that he could nip at her neck, rest his forehead on her shoulder and feel the tiny noises she was making.

They had taken their time getting up after that, waiting until the room was willing to sit still for them to crawl to the bed. Sarah had managed to tuck them under the covers, wrapping herself around AJ even more tightly than the comforter. He had fallen asleep with her safely in his arms, shielded from everything but herself. She had whispered urgently, "You're the best thing I ever had. I love you so much."

He had meant to tell her the same thing, but his lips had seemed too heavy to move and he had tiredly reminded himself to tell her in the morning.

*

Between Leighanne's classy decorating scheme, Nick's studio's catering connections and Kevin's penchant for organizing, AJ had to reluctantly admit that Nick's party had turned out to be pretty damn 'schwank.' He ruffled Nick's salon-styled hair and punched him lightly, "Good party, kiddo."

Nick pulled several of the buttons on AJ's shirt loose and moved away. Howie shook his head reprovingly. "You couldn’t have done that after we had met this mystery woman?"

Howie headed off in the direction Nick had gone, clearly intent on meeting the woman next to Nick. The top of her head just barely reached Nick's shoulder. She was laughing at something Nick had said to her, her brown eyes flashing happily and her full cheeks reddening rapidly. Nick turned as he saw them coming, AJ's slight evidently already forgotten. He held out his hand, "Lara, these are my two best friends who couldn't be bothered to show up on time, Howie and AJ."

AJ shook Lara's hand after Howie, slightly taken aback by the firmness of her grip. He imagined it took an extra layer of toughness to survive as a woman in the particular field she had chosen.

She sized up the two men in front of her. "So, you guys are Backstreet Boys."

Her tone indicated that this was news to her and AJ was a little bit surprised by the fact that evidently Nick had been right about her not knowing who Nick was. It was heartening. AJ tipped his head. "Shh, don't tell anyone, alright?"

"I'm probably gonna be the only one here who didn't know that until tonight, huh?" Lara sounded mildly worried underneath the lightness of the question.

Howie told her smoothly, "You know now. And Nick likes you better than all those people who knew anyway."

Nick pinned Howie with a shut-the-hell-up glare. Lara turned to him and he wiped his face to carefully neutral. "That true, Mr. Carter?" She asked.

"Um," Nick blinked and a nervous smile stole onto his face. "I'm gonna go get something to drink. You want something?"

"Gin and tonic, light on the gin," she let him off the hook and he scurried to the bar.

AJ let her in on a family secret, "Nick's a lost cause in the flirting department."

"Yeah, we were doing fine until he asked me to the party, then all of a sudden just talking evidently had expectations placed on it, at least in his mind." She sighed after him fondly.

AJ took a chance on her, needing to believe in something, and gave her the only advice he had to give. "He's worth a little trouble."

She turned back to AJ and Howie, assessing them more thoroughly this time than at first introduction. Cautiously she responded, "I've been thinking that same thing."

After a little more small talk, AJ left Lara alone with Nick, who had returned with the drinks. AJ steered Howie away from the music, where they could speak at a normal decibel level and dropped his opinion that, "Caution is a good thing in a possible Backstreet mate."

Howie glanced back at Lara and said, distractedly, "True."

*

AJ danced with Kristin and Leighanne, holding their waists carefully, mindful of their momentary dual existence. He didn't think about the way Sarah's hipbones had curved smoothly under his hands, the way her skin would have felt, stretched taut to make room for an embryo.

He danced with Leslie, who had Nick's smile, and Angel, who had Nick's eyes. He danced with Lara, who couldn’t keep her eyes off Nick. She confided, "He's a gentleman."

AJ agreed. "We did our best with the young'n there."

She wanted to know, "Is Kevin kind of…terse in general?"

AJ made a mental note to talk to Kevin about scaring off Nick's potential girlfriends. "He's protective. We all are. Nick's the baby."

She nodded knowingly and politely refrained from mentioning that Nick wasn't even a year younger than her. "I'm the youngest of three."

AJ mock-danced with Brian, who was in über-goof mode. He ate some of the fruit fondues at Nick's urging, or rather, Nick's suggestion that AJ eat something before Nick force-fed it to him.

He watched Howie dance with different women. Howie had taught Leslie to salsa when she was sixteen and at twenty her body had settled into the dance. The two of them looked better together than anyone had a right to, and AJ didn’t have to wonder how Howie had passed himself off as straight for all these years. AJ knew, as did Kevin and Brian and Nick, that Howie tended to think of women as an endless supply of sisters that the world had provided him with, but his way of touching their hands, kissing their cheeks, leading them around a dance floor tended toward the incestuous to outside eyes.

AJ had always thought that if Howie would just look at women as objects of romantic possibility, he wouldn't have to be jealous of the women in Howie's life. A girlfriend, or even a wife could never be to one of the guys what they were to each other; AJ knew this fact intimately. It hadn't mattered how much AJ had loved Sarah, his relationship with her had been something wholly apart from his relationship with the other guys and they had both known it.

Someone of sister status was competition, though. The Boys were family and only someone of immediate familial importance could break into their ranks. Howie's acceptance of women on that level made AJ jealous in ways that he couldn't and wasn't sure he wanted to explain to himself. AJ probably knew the significance of Howie's biological sisters better than anyone, including Paula and Hoke. Caroline's death had created an emptiness in Howie that nobody, not AJ or anyone, could fill. AJ was reminded of that watching Howie's hips move in time with Leslie's.

AJ tried to disappear to the bathroom a few minutes before midnight, knowing that Kevin would kiss Kristin and Brian would kiss Leighanne and that Nick might even work up the nerve to take his chances with Lara. Knowing that he would have done something silly and dramatic, like dipping Sarah to the floor before kissing her dizzy, that she would have laughed, upside down with her eyes closed. Howie caught AJ's attempted escape no more than three paces toward the double doors and pulled him back, "Stay with me. I want to help you bring in the New Year."

AJ surprised himself by what came out of his mouth, not having really understood his own emotions on this issue, "I can't start another year right now."

"You can," Howie disagreed. "With me." He corrected himself, "With us. We're still here."

"She always made sure there was fake champagne wherever we went for New Years'. And she wore a new dress, because evidently it's bad luck where she comes from to start the year out in already used clothing." Or rather, that had been the excuse she had used to justify getting the new dresses she wanted every January 1st.

"Caro made resolutions that she actually kept. I do that every year now."

"You have one for this year?" AJ wanted to know.

"To get this album put out."

"That's not really a just-you resolution," AJ pointed out.

"No, but it's something I can push us all hard enough to do." Howie could be tough when the situation demanded it, tougher even than Kevin.

"You have a sweater or something that you've knitted but not used yet?"

Howie considered the question. "I made a scarf. I haven't decided who to give it to yet. Someone who lives where it's cold."

"Can I borrow it for tomorrow?"

"You can have it, I'll make another one if it turns out I actually need to. It's pretty warm here, though."

"I won't wrap myself up in it."

"It's pastel."

AJ winced, but just said, "I did ask kinda last moment."

Howie turned his head as the partygoers shouted, "10!" He turned back to AJ quickly, "Stay?"

AJ shouted, "8! 7!…"

When they hit one, Howie pulled AJ over to the table where Kristin and Leighanne had been holding court most of the evening. He grabbed a couple of glasses that were set aside from all the others and held one out to AJ, "I reminded Nick to make sure there was something for us to toast with at midnight."

AJ took the glass with slightly unsteady fingers and marveled at how loud the sound of his glass meeting Howie's was, even in the noisy ballroom. Howie drank the carbonated cider and said, "Happy New Year, Aje." His lips were wet and the words sounded like a kiss.

*

Part II: Present

*

AJ woke up on the morning of the ninth and scrubbed at his eyes, which were telling him the alarm clock declared the time to be eleven twenty-four. The time had only changed by a minute when he reopened his eyes, which now felt delicate and puffy. AJ stood up and swore. "Shit." He walked to his doorway and yelled, "D!"

Howie's voice came back from a direction that sounded suspiciously like the kitchen rather than his room. "Yes?"

"Why the fuck didn’t you wake me up? We're gonna be late." AJ hurried to kitchen, intent on grabbing a glass of water before dressing. He was pushed into a chair by Howie. AJ stared at Nick, who was evidently sitting across from him. "Why are you here? Are we not going into the studio today? Did we change schedules again? Is one of the girls sick?" A few weeks into their second trimester, both women's morning sickness had slaked off and the guys had decided to start going into the studio earlier.

AJ felt someone kiss his cheek from behind and he looked up into Kristin's eyes. Behind her, Kevin wished AJ a, "Happy birthday."

"Oh." AJ stilled at that and he knew the expression on his face was comical because he heard Brian laugh. "I had forgotten."

Howie placed a large glass of something pink and frothy in front of AJ. "Good thing you have us to remind you."

AJ took a sip. It was a strawberry cherry smoothie, with just enough carrot juice to give the sweetness an edge. AJ told Howie solemnly, "I want to bear your children."

Howie answered with an equal amount of gravity. "Let's wait until we get the other expected chillun' squared away."

AJ went back to sipping his cold treat.

Nick bounced a little, "We're taking today off. We're gonna kidnap you."

"If it's ransom you're after, I warn you, my mom drives a hard bargain." AJ's lips were turning pink from the berry juice.

Nick stuck his tongue out. "We're going golfing, ungrateful bitch."

AJ spewed shards of ice with his surprised, "Really?" Brian and Kevin enjoyed golfing as much if not more than AJ, but Nick hated it, couldn't get into the stop-start rhythm, or sustain the patience it took to start at hole one and finish at hole eighteen. Howie was completely indifferent, but given the choice, AJ knew it wouldn't be the way Howie spent a day.

"Yeah," Nick responded, exasperated and wiping melted ice off his face.

AJ swiveled around and looked to Howie for confirmation. Nick threw the napkin he had been using at the back of AJ's head as punishment for doubting him. Howie leaned against the sink casually, "Unless you'd rather do something else."

AJ untwisted himself, facing where Nick was pouting dramatically and off to the side, where Brian was snickering along with Leighanne at both of them. AJ felt something tug at the back of his throat. It didn't feel like the sadness that had made its home there on a semi-permanent basis and AJ took a drink to see if he could wash it down. It didn't work. AJ had a hard time working the words, "No, that's great," past the blockade that reminded him eerily of happiness.

*

On the fifteenth of January, AJ took a ten minute drive to the nearest grocery store with the list that Howie had made up in his back pocket. He parked and nearly made it through the door when his eyes focused on the overwhelming amount of pink and red displayed in the grocery store's windows. Ice-pick sharp clarity of what those colors occasioned formed in his mind and AJ barely made it to the waste bin a few feet outside the front doors before losing what felt like everything he had eaten in a week.

An elderly lady inquired as to whether he was all right and AJ smiled weakly, accepting her offer of a handkerchief. She pulled out a cell-phone and asked if he needed her to call someone and he patted his hip where he had hooked his phone, "No, thanks."

She wandered into the supermarket. AJ looked away, out into the parking lot and counted the blue cars. Blue was a safe color. Except that his favorite of her nightgowns had been blue, and that she had painted her toenails blue for a whole summer, and she had evidently named her first car Blue. Other than that, though. It was safer than red and pink. Safer than colors that were indelibly linked with his wedding to her, even if she had refused to let either of those colors anywhere near her ceremony and reception. "Too traditional," she had smirked, and he had respected that enough not to point out that they had set their wedding date for Valentine's Day, for fuck's sake, and really, how much ability to escape from tradition was there after that?

AJ let go of the trash can he was still supporting himself on, just to see if he could. He wobbled a bit before turning resolutely around, looking nowhere but straight in front of him. He made it safely through the doors and grabbed a shopping cart. He paid only enough attention to make sure he wasn't going to plow into anyone around him. He was glad he had gotten to know this particular grocery store so well while living with Howie and was able to comfortably navigate the aisles, getting exactly the requested items in a minimum amount of time. He managed a, "Hi, how are you?" for the teenager checking him out, closed his arms tightly around the paper bag and walked with preternatural speed to his car.

AJ took a moment to appreciate the black leather interior of his car, turned the "System of a Down" CD that Howie had left in the player up to a level where he couldn't so much hear it as feel it, and peeled out of the grocery store parking lot leaving rubber in his wake.

*

Since Nick's arrest, the youngest member of Backstreet had consumed about as much alcohol as post-rehab AJ. Instead, he had devoted himself to learning how to make every single non-alcoholic party beverage that existed and being able to do so at a mere suggestion. Brian and Howie had made fun of him for about a week until they realized how much more fun it made social events for both Nick and AJ.

AJ's favorite was a frozen pineapple concoction that tasted surprisingly like a piña colada. Nick kept a rainbow assortment of tiny drink umbrellas under his sink for festive occasions.

They celebrated Nick's birthday in the evening after a full day at the studio and Nick got on AJ's back about it, "See how much more they love you," but settled down when some of the studio crew surprised him with an ice cream cake during lunch.

Kevin had rented out the pool in his apartment complex for the night so that they could be as obnoxious as they so chose without anyone's getting in their way. Nick brought his umbrella box and his blender and made himself something unnaturally blue before taking orders from the guys. Brian placed a dinner order with Nick's favorite Italian place and went to go pick up the food.

Nick goofed off in the pool with Lara while waiting for dinner. Howie and AJ set the table that Kevin had cajoled the landlord into providing for them. They had a quick and dirty fight over which side of the plate the forks went on. In the end, AJ let Howie win, because he couldn't remember if his mom had taught him table etiquette, or someone on one of their crews, and Howie was secure that his knowledge had been directly handed down through generations of his mother's family. Since they had gotten stuck with the menial labor and Brian had his hands full of steaming doggie bags, Kevin was given the honor of dragging the birthday boy out of the pool so that they could eat.

Kristin ate more than the rest of them put together, though Leighanne gave her a run for her money. AJ ate enough that Nick gave him a noogie and grinned like an idiot, shrugging when AJ fondly demanded, "What crawled into your ass?"

After dinner, Nick pushed a fully-clothed Brian into the pool. Brian's shouts about cramps were drowned by what sounded like, "Old-wives tales," from a surprisingly loud Lara. Leighanne shook her head disparagingly at both of them for good measure and helped Kevin, AJ and Howie clean up until they ordered her to go sit down with Kristin.

When they had rid themselves of the mess, Howie tugged AJ's shirt over his head, "Get in?"

AJ shucked off his shoes. "You gonna?"

Howie was already undressing. "Yeah."

AJ ran, diving low into the six foot deep-end, barely hearing the impact below water that indicated that Howie was right behind him. He came up with this eyes closed, his world consisting of Howie's wet breathing, Nick's excited yelps, Brian's exuberant shouts and Kevin's deep throated laugh in the moment before he wiped the water away and used his sense of sight once again.

*

Nobody had gotten AJ a calendar for the new year and he hadn't felt any particular drive to pick one out himself. There didn't seem to be much point to ticking off the days when he wasn't waiting for any specific point in the future. The idea depressed him, so if he needed to know the date for something, AJ used the function on his cell phone that gave him access to such information and left well enough alone.

He slapped his screaming alarm into silence on the morning of February fourteenth and knew, instinctively, exactly what day it was. Twenty minutes later, AJ felt Howie sit on the bed behind him. He mumbled, "I'm sick, go away."

Howie followed standard Backstreet operating procedures in case of emergency or otherwise bad occurrence and ignored AJ. He laid down behind AJ and threw an arm over the younger man and his pile of knitted throws. AJ ordered him to, "Get your nasty ass shoes off my clean bedspread," without much heat. Howie kicked his shoes off the edge of the bed anyway.

"You just gonna stay here all day?" AJ asked, unsure of what he wanted the answer to be.

"If I need to, yeah." Howie didn't sound as if this were much of an imposition. "I called Nick and told him to work on getting his solo in 'Delirious' laid down."

"I'm okay," AJ asserted, mostly to see if he could make the words come out right.

"Okay," Howie agreed easily.

AJ drifted in and out of sleep for most of the morning, dragging himself out of bed at half-past one only because there was no possibility of his waiting a second longer to go to the restroom. Howie caught him coming out and pulled him down the hall forcefully into the kitchen, where Howie made AJ drink a glass of cranberry juice and eat some scrambled eggs before allowing him to curl up on the couch and fall back asleep.

AJ woke up again sometime around five. It was already dark outside and AJ had to stare at the clock for several moments to register the fact that it was actually evening. He called Howie, who had left a note on the refrigerator, "I went to the studio, call if you need me."

"Hi," he croaked and then tried again, going for less of a bullfrog impression the second time around, "hi."

"Hey, you just wake up?"

"I'm an idiot, I'm gonna be up all night."

"I have a bottle of Dramamine stashed somewhere in the bathroom." Howie got bus-sickness and kept the drug on himself pretty regularly even when they weren't on tour. "I'll let you have one if you're nice to me."

Which reminded AJ, "Sorry about this morning."

"Oh hey, payback's fair game," Howie said in reference to the first year Caroline hadn't been around for her birthday and he had been mean enough to everyone to actually make Nick cry. "You really weren't that bad."

"I was gonna take her to Nick's beach house this year. I had even asked Nick about it a while back, just to make sure he wasn't letting someone else stay there around this time. I figured we'd lock ourselves in for a week, maybe venture out for some sun, sand, beachy stuff. Mostly us away from everything else was the idea. She liked that sort of thing." AJ felt himself caught up in his stunted plans, almost as though if he kept talking she would show up, flip flops and all, ready to head down the highway. Into the sunset.

Howie, who knew that there was nothing really to be said, settled for, "I'm sorry babe."

AJ accepted this. "Me too." His breath hitched in a sob.

Howie asked, "You want me to come home?"

AJ managed to get the words, "Could you?" past lips flooded with tears.

*

Howie took a little longer than he should have to get home, but AJ wasn't aware enough to notice. He figured it out when Howie held up a pizza box from the place a couple of doors down from the studio. AJ showed interest, mostly to make Howie feel better, "What did'ja get?"

Howie walked toward the kitchen. "What do you think?"

It took a couple of rotations for AJ's brain to realize that this was one of those times when Howie would get AJ's favorite. "Margharita," he said, using the fancy name the place had given a pizza consisting of real tomatoes on top of the sauce, nearly too much oregano and two types of cheese.

"Got it in one." Howie set the box on the counter and turned around to pull AJ into a hug. "I rented us a couple of Fred and Gingers too."

AJ stood back from Howie and mustered a smile. "Brainless dancing film fare. The evening might be salvageable after all."

Howie turned AJ around and smacked his ass lightly, "Go get us plates."

AJ obeyed, "We're not eating off of napkins? You have no idea how to be single, Dorough. Which, all things considered, is kind of impressive."

Howie went in the direction of his bathroom, hoping to find the pills for later. "I'm great at being single, I just suck at being a pig."

"Synonymous," AJ yelled half-heartedly after Howie.

"Oooh. Sixty-four dollar word!" Came floating back.

Sarah had improved AJ's vocabulary within their first month together. He had been forced to go online and look up a word twice. He memorized them in case she used them again. She generally did. He had told her she was overeducated. She had thought it over, "Maybe. But you're undereducated. We balance each other out."

AJ set the plates on the table and went the extra mile to put glasses out too. He laid his palms on the flat surface of the table, resting his weight against them. He felt unbalanced.

Howie returned shaking the bottle in the rhythm of the song they had been recording that day and didn't say anything about AJ's bizarre posture. "We gonna eat?"

AJ pushed off the table and stood still for a moment, finding his center of gravity. He moved to grab the box off the counter and slide it onto the table. "Until we can't eat no more."

Howie opened the box and grabbed himself a piece. "That's the spirit."

AJ tore off two pieces. He thought he might be hungrier than any of his internal conditions were indicating. That had been happening a lot. "Thanks for babysitting."

"When did I agree to that?" Howie looked genuinely surprised and confused.

"Me, D. Tonight."

Howie chewed slowly, giving himself some time. "I live with you. What was I supposed to do, not come home?"

"You didn’t have to offer up your apartment in the first place," AJ pointed out.

"This is bullshit, and you know it Aje. We're best friends. Your life is kinda fucked right now. It’s getting better, you know it and I know it, but still, fucked. So you're here with me, which makes things better, for everyone really, because you have someone and I know you're okay and I can tell the others that you're okay and they trust me not to lie. You're not a burden, you're not an imposition and you're sure as fuck not a babysitting charge. Are we clear?"

AJ played with his food. "It's funny, because I sound like Sar when I say this, and I know that every time she said this I told her she was being ridiculous, but I just can't see how you can keep doing this. Sarah was my wife, you know. And yeah, she was being ridiculous, I wasn't going to leave her over the depression, but still, it was hard, okay? All's said and done, there wasn't a day I didn't wake up and wish that she was all right, that everything was fine with her and yeah, it was a lot for her sake, but it was a lot for me too. But you just keep being patient and okay with everything and understanding and I don’t get it, D."

"I have three other guys to bitch to. Of course I want you happier, Aje, for both of our sakes, for everyone's sake. I don't really mind that it's taking you awhile though. I can't imagine how long it would take me, don't really want to. I just want you here and safe and the rest, I can wait for that, or I can do without it." Howie swigged at his drink defiantly.

"I'm tired of waiting," AJ told him.

"Yeah, I think I would be too."

AJ didn't respond. Instead he ate half the pizza before pulling three pints of Ben & Jerry's out of the freezer for a movie-viewing snack. Howie took the opportunity to feel encouraged.

*

AJ took Brian out to lunch the day before his birthday because Brian was having family in town, Southern belles and gents flying in from all over and AJ had warned him, "I dunno how long I'm gonna last."

Brian had understood. "Me neither. It was kinda my mom's idea." Which explained a lot, because Brian was the biggest momma's boy AJ had ever met and that included Lance Bass and Justin Timberlake, who both had the moniker tattooed across their foreheads.

AJ treated Brian to country-fried steak and mashed potatoes with gravy and kept his mouth shut about the heart-attack that Brian was clearly asking for. He gave Brian a green baby entourage with booties and all. They had recently received the news that it was to be a boy, but AJ stressed that he wasn't all about, "determining gender before they're out of the womb. That shit fucks kids up."

Brian folded the tiny outfit carefully. "I think I might be more worried about your language than blue socks."

AJ handed over his second present, choosing to ignore the censure, "This one's actually for you."

Brian opened the envelope and grinned.

"Take your gal out, I think she might be getting a bit stir crazy," AJ instructed, counting on the fact that the two tickets to the Dixie Chicks concert -- Brian's secret weakness -- would be used for just that purpose.

"I take back every harsh word I have ever said about you. This has been sold out for weeks."

"Yeah." AJ had heard Brian bitching about the fact that he'd forgotten which day he was supposed to buy tickets and by the time he had gotten around to it, they had already been sold. "I loaned out my soul, but don't worry, I'll get it back in a few weeks."

"Good to know one of us still has that on him."

AJ chuckled in acknowledgement of the sentiment. "Non-sequitur warning."

"Consider me adequately warned."

"You should know, you and Leigh both, really, that I am glad you're having this baby. I know I haven't been the greatest about being around and helping out, when everybody else has been on top of that from day one, but honestly…the baby, babies, they're a whole part of what reminds me that the future isn't just another day to be marked off of the calendar at one point." AJ stopped and fiddled with his fork, not really sure what kind of response he was expecting, or really even wanted.

"Aje," Brian waited until AJ looked up at him to continue, "we know all that. We wouldn't send Howie back with updates if we thought you didn't care."

AJ pressed the tines of the fork against the skin of his palm. "It's just that I spent so long being there for her. I was always worried and always on top of it and I think I forgot how to take care of myself somewhere along the way. So, I have to relearn that first, before I can take care of anyone else. But it doesn't mean I don't care. You guys are my everything, your families are…an extension of that."

Brian made AJ release the fork and rubbed softly at where the indentations took a while to reform themselves to complete the unblemished landscape of AJ's palm. "Okay, then you need to take that time. We'll wait. We know you care, we've never doubted that, and that is not an easy thing to say, Aje."

"No," AJ knew that, "not easy at all."

"You know you're doing just fine, right? I mean, we're all really proud."

AJ blinked at Brian, "Nobody said anything."

"Well, somebody should have. We are. For not trying to follow her, or diving back into a bottle, for letting us help you, for pretty much everything you've done since that morning." Brian nodded his head as if to agree with himself. "You're doing…perfectly."

"Maybe not that," AJ muttered.

Brian put his palm down on the table, in lieu of a metaphorical foot. "Perfectly."

There was no arguing with a Brian who knew he was right.

*

On March 21st, AJ commandeered the table on the apartment's balcony and planted a limited garden of snap peas and tomatoes and some perennials that had looked nice on the front of the seed package. Sarah had taught him the fine art of keeping plants alive on a bus, how to understand the delicate ratio between food and water and insider's tricks like the use of spray bottles over watering cans or pitchers.

Vegetables and flowers were slightly more complicated, more needy. AJ tended to them carefully, using methods suggested by the gardening tome the employee at the bookstore had recommended, to keep bugs away without poisoning the plants. He kept charts of how much water they needed and had been given, performed experiments to figure out what place on the balcony afforded the tiny rows of seeds the most direct sunlight, and sang to them while he worked. Sarah had sworn up and down that music made plants grow faster, and, as AJ had nothing to disprove the theory, he chose to believe it.

On a morning nearly a month after AJ had begun his project, Howie woke AJ by pulling him out of bed, not even reacting to AJ's increasingly vocal protests as Howie dragged him out to the balcony where AJ swore and shut his eyes as a precaution against the early morning sun. Howie put a hand up to shield AJ's eyes, "No, no, you have to look."

Carefully, AJ peeled his eyes open and looked straight ahead at the newly arisen buds of the perennials. "D. It's working. I grew something. Something I couldn't leave without watering for four days, even." Sarah had picked relatively low-maintenance plants for AJ, not trusting him to handle anything more complex.

"I know. No more having to drive forty minutes for a fresh tomato." Howie had asked his mom for good tomato-based recipes in anticipation of this particular aspect of AJ's hard work.

AJ walked over to the stylish watering can that Howie had bought him and poured enough water for it to seep underneath the surface with no overflow. "I was supposed to do this when I got out of rehab. Sherry suggested pansies, but I think she was just digging on me."

Howie walked to the edge of the balcony and leaned out slightly over the rail. "Why didn’t you?"

AJ set the watering can down. "Most people, when they get outta rehab, they don’t have much to return to. The lucky ones have a family, but most of us have managed to destroy that, so we end up going back to a life where the big goal is for us just to make sure we get dressed in the morning, eat three times a day, sleep eight hours a night, and oh, yeah, don’t drink. Which is a huge amount of responsibility, as it turns out. So they tell you to get a plant, because if you can handle the extra dosage of responsibility, then you might have a shot of meeting other, more complicated sets of expectations. I already had four plants, though, five if you count Sarah, which I don't know if I do or not. I wanted her to stay with me, of course, but I was ten times more worried about keeping you guys okay with me, and that was way more work than having to remember to water something twice a day."

"But you did it," Howie reminded him.

"I did it. And I kept her, which ended up being more important than I thought at the time. Her being dead though, her basically saying, 'you couldn't hold up to your end of the bargain,' that throws me." AJ held up a hand, aborting Howie's squawk of protest. "I know, it's not my fault. She was depressed and stuck inside her head and she would have done it no matter what I said or did, but somewhere beneath all the logic, I wonder about the what ifs. What if I had started off with a plant? Would I have known how to keep things alive better? What if I had woken up an hour earlier? What if I had told her I loved her, like I meant to that night? And there's a million of them, each as pointless as the last, and I'm learning to answer them with a stronger, 'it wouldn't have made a difference' each day, but that doesn't mean I don’t think about it. It doesn’t mean I don’t look at those buds and wonder why the hell I can get them to peek out of the earth when I couldn't get my wife just to stay safely on it."

Howie turned to AJ's back, his hip digging into the steel rails. "Okay."

AJ faced him. "Okay?"

"Is there something else you need me to say?"

AJ pursed his lips for a second and said tightly, "I think mostly I just need you."

"Okay."

AJ shook his head slightly, "It’s not-"

"I know," Howie's words were succinct, and AJ knew he was trying to keep the hurt out of his voice.

"I'm sorry." AJ was. He remembered coming to the awareness that he had preyed upon Howie's loneliness in his days spent constantly drunk. He had woken up to the fact in the middle of withdrawals and had vomited up nothing, sheer guilt, for hours. That was before now, before he had known about the way Howie looked at him when Howie was so positive that AJ was fully asleep, before he knew that the older man would and had given up his life to a man that he never expected to love him back. "I don't have that to give anyone yet."

"It's okay, Aje." Howie stressed the word 'okay.'

"I think, that that may be the most perfect antithetical statement of the situation that I have ever heard," AJ quipped darkly.

Howie twisted his neck to look back over the city. His soft, "Ooooh, sixty-four dollar word," was lost in the early morning April wind.

*

AJ made it to the vending machine two seconds ahead of Kevin and forked up the dollar for a 20 ounce bottle of Root Beer, Kevin's favorite. He handed it to his bandmate and quickly bought a Dr. Pepper for himself before he could get over to the Dole machine and pick out the dreaded strawberry-banana.

Kevin twisted the cap open and allowed the air to release with a hiss. "Thanks."

AJ waited until the bubbles formed by falling through the machine went down a bit in his. "Welcome." He opened the bottle. "I think I should move out of Howie's place."

"It's your place too, you both pay rent," Kevin reminded him, but AJ knew he had gotten Kevin's attention.

"I don't think it's good for him." AJ took a sip too quickly and winced as the carbonation burned all the way down his trachea.

"I see. When did you figure things out?" Kevin wanted to know.

"It's been awhile. I was ignoring the situation, hoping it would go away. I thought maybe he was suffering from temporary insanity." AJ shrugged.

"If it were insanity, Aje, we'd have had no choice but to commit him about seven, eight years back now. And that's just when Brian and I managed to catch on to the whole thing."

AJ clenched his teeth before consciously making himself relax. "So, moving out," AJ said, with more confidence than he was really feeling, because he had no idea of where he would go or how he would remember to live in his own space with nobody else's leftovers to steal or footsteps waking him up in the middle of the night.

Kevin solved the problem by being very firm about the fact that, "I don’t think it's a good idea."

AJ tried to explain, using the hand that wasn't holding the soda bottle to emphasize his points. "My living with him hurts him. I can't do that to him, not after everything he's done for me in the past year alone, that being a small percentage of the things I owe him for overall."

Kevin took several large gulps of his drink in succession, draining the bottom, and pitched it smoothly into the recycling bin in the corner of the room. "Yes, to a certain extent, your being constantly in close proximity is hurtful to Howie. On the other hand, I wasn't kidding when I cited that seven years ago thing, Aje, and it's not exactly like we haven't been living inside each other's shoes for most of that time anyway. Howie's used to it, he's used to it and it makes him feel much more secure that he can take care of you and be the one in the group to know first how you're doing and I would hate to be the one to advise you to take that privilege away from him. He's your best friend, even more than someone who's in love with you, he's always known how to put that first and I don’t think that you have the right to insult him by insinuating that he's not up to the task anymore."

AJ threw his empty bottle into the recycling far more violently than Kevin. It met with the side of the bin and bounced off, rolling back to AJ. "Damned if I do, damned if I don't."

"A little bit," Kevin conceded. "But in a lesser-of-the-two-evils world, which we all know this is, you staying there, where you're comfortable, him getting to continue being lover to you in every sense except the most literal, that's the only solution that I can see making sense. If I thought that you moving out would hurt him less, I would tell you, because as much as you're going through, Howie's paid his dues time and again and we could find somewhere else to get you settled and happy. I'm not overlooking his needs here, I just honestly think that they're being met as much as is humanly possible at this point in the game."

AJ bent down to pick up the boomerang bottle and tossed it again, this time with less animosity. It hit the far side of the container and rebounded into it. "I want him to be happy."

Kevin nodded, he and AJ had known each other far too long for Kevin to recite calming platitudes. "You and me both. You and me and Brian and Nick, at that. When Howie says it about you it's me and Brian and Nick and him. The sentiment is fast becoming something of a Backstreet motto."

AJ knew that statement didn't wrap everything up as nicely as Kevin would have wished, particularly not in the case of AJ's evolving and sometimes indeterminate relationship to Howie, but he wasn't yet ready to discuss those issues. Instead, he returned the sardonic smile that had formed on Kevin's face. "Classy."

"That's us, the classy boy band." Kevin smacked AJ's ass, herding him in the direction of the studio, to prove his point.

*

"Against all odds, gentlemen," Kristin announced grandly, "that sounded like something I would actually consider buying an album for."

The Boys all considered this for a moment before Nick took off his headphones and spoke through the studio glass into the mixing booth where she was sitting and observing them. "Really?"

"Well, it needs a bit of fine tuning," she smiled in the direction of the man sitting next to her, who was already bent over the sound boards, fiddling with the controls. "But yes, really."

"A whole album, right?" Brian clarified. "Not just a single?"

"Counting your chickens?" Next to Kristin, Leighanne raised an eyebrow.

Brian made a face at his wife. "I'm gonna be the bigger man here, and not respond to that."

Howie took hold of the conversation and pulled them back to the issue at hand. "When you say you would buy an album for that song, are you saying that it's better raw than the other stuff we've been seeing and is therefore releasable, or are you saying that the song itself is actually single material?"

"The former. I think it's too slow to be released as the first single. Maybe the second. But AJ's sounding much more steady than he has been, Kevin's harmonies were really coming together there, and Brian was perfect. You're sounding a little more into it these days as well," Kristin commented lightly. She knew enough of what was going on in Howie's life to feel that a little added encouragement from any given direction might not be a bad thing.

Howie's smile was a little grateful and a little knowing all at once. "Okay, fair enough."

AJ waved at the women to get their attention. "Thanks for the input."

Kevin caught the tech's eye and gave him a hand signal to replay what had just been recorded so that the guys could listen to it themselves, try and see if they heard what Kristin and Leighanne had. The opening chords of the song filtered into the recording booth and at first, AJ thought Kristin had nailed her descriptions. Brian's opening solo was spotless, Kevin was lending a much fuller sound to the overall harmony than he had been earlier in the sessions and AJ's own voice was much stronger than he had gotten used to its sounding in the over half a year that he had been grieving. There was something Kristin hadn't mentioned though, and it was that aspect of the song that for AJ, made the album worth purchasing.

The song was a love ballad -- slow -- a little more country than pop, and leaning slightly toward the melancholy. Howie's voice, floating right above the rest of theirs, fit the mood of the song perfectly. Nick and Brian had written the song, but AJ wondered if maybe Howie had hung around, listened to their ideas, bounced his own off on them without interfering in the writing process all that much. Howie's soul was laid just the tiniest bit bare when he sang the chorus and it gave the song a haunting beauty of truth that AJ could claim to have rarely heard in music.

When the last few measures of the guitar solo that ended the song died out, AJ told the tech, "Don't fuck with Howie's end of the harmonies."

Nick had been saying something at the same time, but AJ had talked over him, so AJ turned to Nick, "Sorry."

Nick shook his head, "Nah, I was saying the same thing."

Howie, who was still bad at taking compliments and preferred to ignore them, blushed furiously as he said, "Um. I think we probably should clean up the middle, with Nick and AJ singing together. It sounds a little flat."

AJ was tempted for a moment to turn the conversation back to just how good Howie had sounded, make his friend listen, but he took pity on him, both out of the fact that Howie was so obviously uncomfortable with everyone's praise and out of the knowledge that having one's self laid out so plainly in a song took a lot out of a person. He let Howie have his way. "Yeah, sorry about that, I was concentrating a little too much on the next section while I was singing that."

Nick put his headphones back on. "All righty then. Let's start with the sixth measure, third page, that gives us four beats, you good with that?"

AJ nodded. The music played.

*

Howie took a vacation the week of Mother's Day and flew to Florida to see his mom. AJ made it all of twenty-four hours before he started walking around the apartment with the cordless, hoping that Howie would call. AJ had been out to dinner with Nick and Lara the night before when Howie had called to say that he had gotten in safely. AJ had listened to the message six times before making himself erase it.

Howie called late into the second day he had been gone. AJ took one look at the caller id on the phone, and seeing "Mom and Dad" programmed in, answered as coolly as he possibly could. "Hey."

"Hey," Howie mimicked. "What'cha up to?"

"Just reading," AJ told him. It wasn't exactly a lie. He'd had a book open and in front of his eyes for nearly an hour.

"Did you go into the studio today?"

"Nah, they were mostly working on Brian's stuff," AJ didn't add the part where he hadn't felt up to recording without Howie, or how he hadn't wanted to miss Howie's call. "How's everyone down there?"

"Everyone's fine. Denise came over for dinner tonight. I invited her to come out, told her you'd give up your bed."

"Very magnanimous of you," AJ deadpanned.

"Very honest of me."

"The apartment is very empty," AJ observed, trying to sound nonchalant.

"Why don't you go stay with Nick for a little bit?" Howie suggested.

"He didn't say anything, but I think Lara's been staying over a lot."

"Aje, you fuck, if you ask Nick if you can stay, he will choose you over his need to get laid for a few days. I know this comes as a shock, but-"

"Shut up. I don't wanna ask that of him, okay?"

"So go to Kev or Bri, no sacrifices being made on either of their parts and really, you've heard it all before."

"Which only means that I have even less desire to hear it all again. Howie, I can make it another four days on my own. I can."

"But you'd like to see yourself do it anyway?"

AJ closed the book lying on his chest and put it on the floor. He curled onto his side. "Basically." He pulled the throw that was folded up over the back of the couch on top of him. "Also, I just, I live with you. That's it. We live together well."

"Of course," Howie agreed. "I understand."

AJ snuggled deeper into the throw, messily unfolded around him. "Good, that makes one of us."

"I miss you, AJ. I've got my mom and my dad and Angie and Polly and John and the rest of the clan here and I miss you like hell. So it's like that, I guess."

"I've been waiting for your call," AJ said, a little caustically, mostly because sometimes Howie's understanding could be overwhelming, and AJ wasn't sure he deserved it.

Howie laughed, "I've been making myself wait to call."

"I'm used to hearing your voice all the time. To telling you every stupid thing that crosses my mind. I feel like…remember when Nick and I had to read Pygmalion in bus school, and you made us watch 'My Fair Lady', because you said it was less depressing, and I disagreed with you?"

"Sure," Howie drew out the syllable, unsure of where this was going.

"I feel like Rex Harrison, being all accustomed to your face and that shit. But not as misogynistic," AJ added.

"I suppose that's good."

"Wow, I don’t feel like a freak or anything now," AJ joked.

"You, a freak?" Howie feigned surprise.

"I miss you, bitch." AJ told him fondly.

"Miss you more, freak," Howie responded.

"Nuh uh," AJ hung up before Howie could get the last word.

The phone rang and AJ picked it up again. It was worth Howie's having the last word to hear more of his voice.

*

AJ threw a hand out, for all intents and purposes still asleep, and managed by some miracle to find the phone. "It's fuck-all early," he growled into the receiver.

"Get Howie's and your ass outta bed and down to Mercy," Kevin instructed him, too much excitement in his voice to leave room for apology.

AJ sat up. Mercy was the hospital that the gynecologist Kristin and Leighanne were seeing worked out of. "Kris? Is it Kris? Is she all right?"

"It's not Kris, it's Leigh, which is why I'm calling, Brian's in there with her. She's fine, loud," Kevin laughed giddily, "but fine."

"Give us twenty minutes." AJ was hanging up as he heard Kevin shout, "Take thirty, drive safely!" AJ jogged down the hall to Howie's bedroom and turned on the lights, "D, get up, we gotta go, seriously, up."

Howie blinked awake painfully. He glanced over at the clock. "Three fifty six, AJ. What could possibly be that important?"

"Leigh's having the baby, Kevin just called," AJ's grin was so big he could barely force the words out. Halfway through the announcement, Howie was already on his feet, searching for a pair of jeans and some shoes. AJ left the room to do the same. They met at the door no more than a minute later. AJ asked, "You have keys?"

Howie dangled them from his pointer finger, opening the door to let them both out and locking it behind them. Howie drove, cutting the time there by ten minutes. AJ goaded him, "I coulda done better."

"In the 'we'd be dead now' sense," Howie concurred easily.

AJ hit the nursing counter at full tilt and leaned over it eagerly, "Can you tell us which room Leighanne Littrell is in?"

A nurse who could have easily been AJ's grandmother smiled and said, "You must be the last of the pep squad. She's still in labor, but you can wait in the lounge down this hall, third door on your left. That's where everybody else is."

When they got to the lounge, Nick and Lara were sipping coffee, both looking disheveled but perfectly content. Kristin was dozing on Kevin's shoulder. AJ took a seat next to Nick, "How long have they been in there?"

Nick looked up at where Howie was still standing. "Uh, well, he called Kevin on the way to the hospital, and Kevin called me and you on his way, so, I guess an hour at most."

"And the doctor says she's doing fine?" Howie's feet were jittering restlessly beneath him.

"That's what they told Kevin when he got here. Haven't heard anything since."

"Did he say how long they expected it to be?" AJ didn't mind waiting around three weeks, if that was what it took. Realistically though, Leighanne and Kristin had picked Mercy for its excellent facilities, and, almost as importantly, its promise of confidentiality. Even so, AJ wasn't going to pretend that someone wasn't going to hear about this by midday at the very latest, and then there would be camera crews everywhere trying to get a first glimpse. He hoped that by that time, Leighanne would have had the baby and Brian would be available to go out and give the reporters a few minutes of his time. A little bit of nuclear-shining-happy Brian ought to be enough to appease the press, at least until the guys could get Leighanne and the baby home.

"They settle on a name yet?" Howie wanted to know.

"You weren't in on that?" Nick frowned and beside him, Lara looked broad-sided. AJ imagined it was the first time she had ever found something in-group out before one of the other guys. "Yeah, Leigh caved last week."

"Really?" Howie and AJ practically gasped at the same time. Leighanne was very rarely the one to give in on major issues.

"Brian just kept saying that the name meant everything, where everything started, where he fell in love with her, where he became part of something… I think it was the second reason that got her to throw in, but I like it, I think it's cool sounding."

"Orlando Wallace Littrell," Howie tried it out. There had never been any question that the kid's middle name would be Leighanne's maiden name, girl or boy, that had been part of the condition for her changing her name back when her and Brian had gotten married.

"I think she was afraid it was too girly sounding," Nick opined.

AJ muttered, "Orlando Wallace Littrell, Orlando Littrell, Orlando," then shook his head, "Nope, I don’t think so."

Lara offered up, "I think it's perfect."

Nick added, giving away some of the nerves he was experiencing, "Just like the baby."

AJ hooked his hand around Nick's head and pulled it toward him, smacking a kiss on Nick's cheek, "It's gonna be fine."

Nick kissed him back, with interest in slobber, "Good to hear you say that."

*

The baby came out, as Brian described it, "A step above perfect," and all five guys spent nearly three hours staring at it through the glass of the nursery, conjecturing about the road to come. By the time they left to go shower and get some sleep before coming back to see Leighanne in a waking state and deal with any press that had shown up, Nick had already decided that Orlando was the next NBA superstar, spurred on to that fate by none other than Nick Carter's fantastic coaching. Kevin was practically signing the kid up for piano lessons right there on hospital grounds, and Brian had the kid auditioning for school choirs as soon as he had the gift of speech. AJ and Howie listened mostly, sometimes laughing, or echoing in their friends' excitement. AJ pressed his fingers to the window and watched the tiny blue blanket rise and fall steadily. That was enough for him, right then, just that rhythm, that slow steady assurance of life.

AJ and Howie were the first two Boys back at the hospital and, as a result, they spent the most time fielding questions from several of the news crews that had arrived. Brian came down to rescue them about the same time Kevin arrived, and AJ thanked Kevin with a knowing smile for having thought to call up to Brian.

Leighanne was breastfeeding when all of them got up to her room. Kristin stroked Leighanne's hair and cooed down at Orlando, who was too busy to really pay attention. Leighanne smiled up at Kristin, her eyes tearing up, "I'm a total sap right now."

Kristin nodded, "I can see why. He's beautiful."

When Orlando had finished, Leighanne allowed Brian to pick him up, Brian walked around the room, a slight bounce in his step, patting Orlando's back lightly. When he was burped, only then did Brian pass him carefully to Kevin. AJ thought it was probably among the hardest things he had ever done to wait patiently for his turn to hold the baby, but he did. Orlando was asleep by the time he got to AJ, but AJ didn't mind, trying to make his breaths quieter so as not to wake him. He felt like crying in the same way that Leighanne had been and wished he had hormones to blame it on. Next to him, Howie's breath hitched softly and AJ let go, allowing himself the release. He handed Orlando back to Leighanne and kissed her forehead, "Y'done good, babe."

She pulled him back toward her with her free hand and kissed his forehead. "You come spend time with him anytime you want, you hear? You’re his family." She looked around, "You all are."

Kristin broke the silence that followed. "Kevin and I have been waiting a lot lately, for the perfect moment to talk to you and Howie, Aje. I don’t know if this is perfect, but it feels like it, so here goes, okay?" She glanced at Kevin who came to her side.

AJ tilted his head, "What's up, babe?"

"You all know that Kevin and I are having twins," Kristin started.

Everyone in the room nodded in unison, there could be no forgetting that announcement. Kevin had actually jumped for joy while telling them. "Baby girls," he had shouted, "Girls!! With an S! Plural!" Nick had twirled to cap off the effect.

Kristin continued. "We've been thinking a lot about names, and about a week ago, we finally settled on something we're both happy with: Carolina Jaye and Sarah Monica."

It was a while before Howie breathed, "Wow." AJ followed it up closely with, "That's…"

Kevin stressed, "Only if it's okay with you. That was our deal."

"Okay?" AJ asked, like he didn't understand the word. "It's a lot of things, but I'm not sure okay really covers it."

Howie tried to explain, "More like, amazing and heart-breaking and something we would never have imagined, not even from you. I, for one, am honored."

"Definitely," AJ put in. "Definitely."

A look of relief spilled over Kristin's features shortly before it disappeared and she said, "That was the first part of what we had to ask."

AJ and Howie exchanged a look. "Shoot," they said in time with each other.

Kevin took the lead this time. "In asking this, we are not saying that we assume that y'all will be living with each other forever, although that would be fine, just don’t think that we expect it or anything. We do think, though, that if the girls ever needed you, that you would be willing to do just about anything for them, including pick up your lives and move back in together so that the girls wouldn't be taken from each other."

Howie wrinkled up his face. "What are you saying, Kev?"

Kristin put her hand on Kevin's wrist. "He's saying that we would like AJ to be Sarah's designated guardian and you to be a designated guardian to Carolina."

AJ went white and stopped breathing. He wheeled around, walking blindly toward the window, where he stopped, staring unseeingly out at the city. Kristin started to say something but was cut off, by what AJ didn't know. Howie came up behind AJ, resting his hands on AJ's shoulders. AJ started to breathe again under the weight. Howie whispered, "You kept the plants alive, Aje."

"This is so much bigger than plants, D. You held Orlando, you felt…" AJ squeezed his hands into fists tight enough that his fingernails drew blood from his palms. "I should not be entrusted with anyone's life, let alone something that small and perfect and-"

"I trusted you with my life. After Caro, when you made me keep eating and talked me into going back to sleep even after nightmares because my body needed the rest, I trusted you then and you didn't fail me. You didn't fail the plants on your bus or the ones on our balcony. And you didn't fail Sarah." AJ started to say something but Howie spoke over him, "I know you don't like hearing this and I'm sorry, but she failed you, baby. And these girls, they aren't going to fail you, y'know why? Because they're Kevin's and Kevin has never failed you."

"Maybe we both failed each other. It took two, though."

"Divorce takes two, Aje, not suicide," Howie corrected him gently. "Just tell me something. Is Kevin right? Would you do anything for these girls? Would you pick your life up, wherever it was, and uproot it to somewhere that they could be together and happy?"

AJ didn’t have to think about that. He didn't have to glance back at Orlando, sleeping safely in his mother's arms, or look at Kevin and Kristin's faces or consider a thing. "Yes. In a second."

"Then maybe you're not perfect. But I swear to you you’re the best choice they could have possibly made if they'd had the chance to consider every candidate available on the surface of this planet. And nobody is perfect, Aje."

Down below, cars passed by continuously, bright colors beaming off their hoods in the early spring heat. AJ watched them without any real concentration for another second before turning and focusing on Kristin and Kevin. Howie turned with him, standing at his side, touching AJ even without reaching out to him.

Kevin held no disappointment for AJ in his voice when he said, "I won't be mad if you say no. I would understand."

AJ hadn’t known up until that moment that an entire soul, splintered to the point of uselessness, could be rebuilt. But a tiny fragment of his slipped back into its proper place and AJ understood instinctively that the sensation, the feel of something nearly forgotten being remembered, was what healing felt like. He let himself cry this time, not even putting up the barest of fights. "I know. I know you would. But I want to be your baby girl's guardian. More than anything I can ever remember wanting."

AJ thought about how badly he had wanted Sarah back with him, alive, and knew that he was telling Kevin one of the hardest truths AJ would ever be able to admit to. Kevin's smile conveyed his acceptance of the enormity of AJ's gift.

*

Kevin got a call in the middle of a recording session that consisted of three shouted words, "Hospital. You. Fuck," and a lot of heavy breathing. Kevin ran to his car. Brian, who had been close enough to hear, said, "I think Kris is in labor."

The other four piled in Nick's SUV because it was the biggest car there and drove down the highway like madmen, trying to catch up with Kevin. It wasn't long before they found themselves in the same lounge they had been waiting in not a month before, experiencing an odd dèja-vu with Brian substituted in for his cousin and Kristin across the hall.

No doctors came out to tell them what was going on and AJ had worked himself into a decently quiet panic by the time Kevin came out wearing an expression that inevitably lead to woeful tidings in Backstreet land. Howie pulled it together enough to say, "What's the deal, Kev?"

"One of the girls isn't positioned right, they have to do a c-section." Kevin's voice was shaking along with his hands. AJ, who was much better in a crisis when he knew the exact perimeters of that crisis, took Kevin's hands and led him to a chair.

Nick asked, "Don’t they do that all the time? I mean, just, it's a pretty common procedure, right?"

"Yeah, Nick, it is," Howie told him calmly, taking a seat as well.

AJ sat down on the side of Kevin that Howie hadn't chosen to occupy. "Hey," he waited until Kevin was looking at him. "Kris is gonna be just fine. Kris and Carolina and Sarah, all your girls are gonna be just fine."

Kevin closed his eyes. "You didn’t hear her screaming."

Brian, who felt that he had adequate right to respond to that, flicked Kevin's knee and told him, "That part happens. Even when it all goes right. Women just…they survive things I don’t think we can imagine surviving."

Brian had a bit of a worship complex concerning Leighanne, it was why she won so many of their fights. Brian had been raised to respect women utterly and wholly and when he had fallen in love with one, it had just kicked that instinct into overdrive. Kevin and Kristin's relationship was wholly different, characterized by the fact that they had tried over and over again to break it off and discovered that they were both just no good without each other. AJ had seen them looking at each other when they thought the other one wasn't looking though, he knew the attachment between them wasn't co-dependence; Kevin and Kristin were both too fiercely individual to form that kind of bond. Whereas with Brian and his wife it was two parts adoration and three parts love, with Kevin and Kristin it was three parts deep and instinctual understanding and two parts love. It worked out for everyone, more so as time went on.

Kevin took a deep breath and opened his eyes, looking straight at Brian. "She was scared."

AJ understood that, understood that it was near impossible to look into the eyes of a person you considered to be an extension of yourself and see her terror and not take it on. Especially if that person didn't frighten easily. Kristin was among the most unflappable people AJ had ever met. "Of course she was, Kev. First time doing this, wouldn't you be? I would be peeing myself." AJ didn't even know if that was anatomically possible, but he figured the imagery would suffice.

"She told me I couldn't stay. Told me the first thing I saw of our babies couldn't be the doctor cutting them out of her insides. Just like that." Kevin clenched his jaw. "It wouldn't have mattered. I'm gonna love them no matter what, she's supposed to know that."

"Kev." Brian was smiling the way he did when he was sharing an inside joke. "Kris and Leigh, they always find ways to send us to the guys when they think that's what we need. She wasn't worried about you being grossed out, she wanted you out here with us, so that we could calm you down for when the babies are out and healthy and she wants her husband back at her side, calm."

Kevin opened his mouth and closed it a few times before saying, "Oh. I guess…oh."

Nick rocked back on his heels. "And really, if she's with it enough to do something like that, there's no way she's not gonna be fine." Nick's logic wasn't always phenomenally logical, but somehow it was still soothing to the other guys.

Kevin slumped in the chair. "Yeah, you've probably gotta point."

Howie tucked a lock of Kevin's hair behind his ears. Kevin needed a haircut, but it hadn't really been on his list of priorities for the past month and a half or so. "So you able to settle down and do some waiting with us now?"

Kevin leaned over and rested his head against Howie's shoulder. "Not like I have much choice, huh?"

Brian pulled up a chair across from Kevin and sat down. "Not really at all."

Kevin made a half-hearted face at his cousin. "I'm glad you guys are here."

Nobody told him there wasn't anywhere else for them to be at that moment. Nobody felt they needed to.

*

AJ felt like a tool, asking for the third time, "Yellow, Sarah, purple, Carolina."

"You’re not going to forget, Aje." Howie reassured him, sounding exhausted.

"Are they gonna look this much alike their whole lives?" AJ was fretting, he knew he was, but he couldn’t help it.

"That's generally what the term 'identical' indicates."

"But they'll like, cut their hair differently, and Sarah will wanna wear different clothes than her sister, right? Because I mean, if they don’t, something could happen and we could take Sarah to piano lessons when it's really Carolina who plays the piano and Sarah's into, I dunno, extreme sports, but I hope not, because then Kevin'll have to lock her up for the rest of her natural life-"

Howie reached over and shook AJ. Hard.

"Okay. Okay." AJ got his breathing under control. "I would have sucked as a father."

"It does seem to bring out a bit of the paranoid schizo hiding inside you."

AJ snorted. "They're so…everything's in place. Five little fingers on each hand, five tiny toes on each foot, centered baby noses, even their hair, what there is of it, curlicues laying just right. I mean, we've all been worked over by makeup artists for hours on end and not looked that perfect. It seems fucked up that they have to leave this place and this time and come out here where people will lie to them and break their hearts and they'll have to shatter and reform just to survive."

Howie curled his fingers over the back of AJ's neck.

AJ reached up and pried Howie's fingers off, intertwining them in his own instead. "That's the thing, though. I don't know anyone who hasn't done that, hasn't been taken apart, inch by inch and rebuilt. And maybe I'm a little pissed off at the world for that. I'm a lot pissed off that it took Sarah apart and she couldn't put herself back together. That I couldn't make it happen any more than she could. I'm so fucking mad I want to scream and break things and be dramatic, but I can't because it goes deeper than that. So it's scary, that maybe that could happen to one of the girls, to Orlando, right? Because it could. But the day Orlando was born, when they asked us, I thought about…all these moments that I have in my head that won’t ever go away."

AJ listed, "There's the time Nick couldn't stop crying about Brian's heart, I mean, not for hours and hours and the way he stopped crying after that, didn't again until I slammed his hand into a door on purpose and the way that him crying was probably the only thing in the world that saved my life. I don't know that anything else could have found me inside the raging psychotic asshole that had taken over. Or there's the way Brian totally freaked the hell out when those girls kidnapped his dog and y'know, he's so calm all the fucking time, I mean, even when they told him they had to dig his heart out of his chest and tinker with it a bit, he was all, 'oh, well, I guess if you say so…' but then those bitches take his ugly pets and he starts throwing hotel lamps across the room, and we'd all seen Kevin be calming and careful and take care of things, but not like that, not like he was Atlas, or whoever the guy is, the one holding the world, because he just stood there, and held onto Brian until his world stood still and things were okay."

AJ paused for a moment, taking a breath, as if to let Howie in on just how important his next thought was. "There's a million of those moments, that I store up, but mostly the one that came to mind was right after they called about Caro, and you knew, but none of us did and you couldn’t talk, not to save your life, you warmed up with us and you got on stage with us and you were there but you weren't, I felt like I couldn't see you, even standing right in front of me. I made you coffee that night, after the show, I can't see why you'd remember, but I was feeling helpless and it was something to do so I did it, measuring the grinds and pouring the water and putting a lump of sugar in yours because you liked it that way when you were upset, 'spoonful of sugar' was how you said it, so I remembered and dumped it on in. You took the coffee from me and our fingers touched while I was giving you the mug and you held your hand there, even though it was hot and maybe burning a little and eventually you said, 'She's dying and I feel I'm going with her and I don't know how to tell everyone that, I don’t know how I'm telling you this,' and so I told everyone and then they knew and we just did the best we could, which wasn't very much but it was something and most of the time you ended up making me feel like it was everything."

AJ pressed his lips together and then broke them apart. "That was what I thought of when they asked, that I did that once even though I couldn't do it again and again and again with Sarah, because whatever I did, it just didn't go all the way through her like it did with you. It got under her skin, I think, a little -- I hope anyway, that the things I did healed some part of her -- but with you it made things better, not perfect, but better and you got past things and became even more the man who is my best friend in the world, for lack of better words to explain who you are to me. And you were standing right behind me and you were part of the package deal and it occurred to me that this could work, that I could fix scraped knees and broken arms and even hearts that had been stamped upon if it wasn't just me. If Kevin and you and Nick and Brian were a part of it then it was going to be okay because when you're all part of the mix things work out for me. Not always in the way I think they're supposed to and usually not without vast amounts of pain involved, but I'm still here and I'm still wanting to be here and all of you are too and there's probably something to be said for that that I'm not even saying here, but I've been talking a long time and I can't remember most of what I said so I'm gonna stop now and hope it made sense."

Howie brought their hands up to his mouth and kissed one of AJ's knuckles. "I got it. I dunno if that's in truth any kind of sign of coherency, but I got it."

"Being that my point, buried deeply inside that mother of a monologue was something along the lines of 'that's really all that matters and since you do things are going to be just fine,' I'll go ahead and take your understanding over the vastly overrated concept of coherency."

"You know that…" Howie bit his lip, considering, "I mean, I think you were probably saying this too, but after the breaking, after the healing, that's always the best of a person. No matter how many times it happens, the scars, they add something. It's usually not pretty, but it's real and okay and if you love the person then all it does is give you something more to love."

"I know. I was trying… Kevin was more whole after the lawsuit. Sharper on the inside, dangerous to those who couldn't see the spikes, but put together in ways that I hadn't even imagined he could be. Brian lived more after the surgery, in everything, even tiny things, like dance steps and how many pieces of cake he would eat at a party. It's that way with all of us, even me, probably, though it's harder for me to see that, especially when I'm still pretty sure that there's no better me that was worth her death. All the same, on some level, I know it's there, waiting to be come into, when I can."

Howie inclined his head toward the glass, "I'm just trying to make you see that the perfection you're looking at in there, it's an optical illusion. To be perfect is to have no room for improvement. Watching them go through the stuff they have to go through to improve, that's gonna suck, I'm not even gonna bother lying. It'll probably involve a lot of stress and sleeplessness and yelling and other unpleasantness, but it'll be worth it, in the end. That's why I said yes. Because everything you guys have taught me that has mattered has been about the fact that living through shit pays off. I want them to know that, I want them to find that out for themselves, and I want to see it happen, the way I've seen it happen with their father and their second cousin and all the guys that they're gonna think of as uncles. I can't imagine any other possible way for this to all happen."

AJ looked at the sleeping bundles of yellow and purple and processed Howie's words. He opened his mind to the other possibilities, paths he hadn't chosen and didn't think he was going to at any time in the future. "I can," he replied honestly, flashing through a million scenarios a moment. "But none of them seem to be making any sense inside my head." His brain stopped working on alternative futures and slipped back into the past for a second, into watching Kevin take Sarah from Kristin's arms, Kevin's eyes holding an expression that AJ had never seen Kevin take on before, not even when dealing with his nieces and nephews. After several minutes, Kevin had held his arms out to AJ, baby and all, "Come hold your goddaughter," with a casualness that belied the trust that was being placed in AJ's possession. A casualness that explained how deeply and without question Kevin placed his faith in AJ.

Suddenly, everything made sense.

*

Orlando was drooling contentedly, asleep on AJ's shoulder when AJ whispered to the other guys, "I've been thinking, if I was willing to front the expense, would you guys be willing to go into the studio, and, with the exception of about two songs, just start recording everything all over again?"

Kevin, sprawled on his back on the floor with Carolina asleep on her belly on top of his stomach, opened one eye. "Why, Aje?"

AJ laid his hand lightly over Orlando's back. It covered the whole space. "Because something's changed in the last few weeks. We sound different. I don’t like the thought of the album being uneven. Besides, I think we sound better, and that never really hurt anyone's sales."

Nick leaned slightly over the back of the couch, looming over AJ and Orlando. "He might have a point. I'd be willing to pitch in for the extra time."

Sarah, who was the only baby still struggling to stay awake, made cooing sounds of what AJ chose to think was agreement, wriggling slightly in Brian's arms. AJ reached over to run his hand over her soft head, "That's my girl, always backing me up."

Brian lifted Sarah up and kissed her nose. She smacked her lips at him. "Okay, I can see where this might be a good idea. I know I'm feeling much more on top of my game vocally since Leigh's been feeling better." The last few weeks of the pregnancy and a couple of weeks following it had been trying for Leighanne, but once she had started recovering she had taken over getting up in the middle of the night to feed and change Orlando, since she could sleep through the day while the baby was sleeping, whereas Brian had to go into the studio.

After Sarah and Carolina had been born they had moved studio hours back up to the afternoon and evening, where they had been when Leighanne and Kristin were still experiencing morning sickness. Kevin had been getting up with Kristin most nights and the later hours meant that he wasn't as tired when he came in.

Howie settled himself on the couch in between AJ and Brian. "I'm all for. We are sounding better. More like we remember why exactly we're doing all this."

AJ knew Howie was talking about making music and releasing it, but the words resonated on a much larger scale for him. "I'm starting to. Look, I know this is mostly about me, I should never have asked to go back into the studio so early. I wasn't ready, but at the same time, I'm not sure I could have made it to ready without going back just to not be ready for awhile. I'm sorry about the time that cost all of you, which doesn't mean that I'm not shameless enough to ask you to indulge me again."

Nick came around the couch and parked himself on one of the armrests. "I don’t think anyone's said this yet, and maybe it's a little mean. I don't want it to be that way, but I'm not sure, I think it might be. None of us has said this to you," Nick looked at AJ, "because we all thought -- think -- that you have the most right to grieve, and you do, of course, but it's not just about you, okay? Yeah, you've sounded like shit most days and we've gotten used to going in not expecting anything to come out of the session, but you quite obviously haven't noticed that none of us have exactly been performing at full capacity since last fall. I'm not gonna pretend like some of that wasn't stress from Leigh and Kris being pregnant, or from the studio being bitchy about how much time this album is taking or any of those really important things. Mostly, though, we all miss Sarah too."

Nick studied AJ's face for a second, careful of the older man's reactions. "We miss her and we think that maybe we should have been there for her, for both of you, that we should have seen things we didn't see. She was one of us, just like Leigh and Kris and can you honestly tell me that if one of them was hurt or in trouble or scared that you wouldn't feel a responsibility to help them out? Sarah was yours, but she wasn't just yours and all of us are trying to cover up the scars she left. More than that, though, she took you apart, and more than knowing what was going on with her, more than being able to stop her from self-destructing, we should have been able to stop her from harming you, and we weren't. At all." Nick was crying, something he did fairly regularly since he had started again, three days before AJ went into rehab and nearly two and a half years after he had first stopped completely.

"So let me correct your slightly selfish, if understandable, idea that this is all about you. It's a lot about you, definitely, and you have sounded like crap. But we've all been at less than our best and nothing in this group has ever been or will ever be about one of us. I don’t even think my solo albums were, as much as I wanted to think they were at the time. They were about my ability to come back to you guys, to be part of a whole again. I wasn't sure I was living up to my part of the bargain, being one of five, so I had to make sure I was one. In the end, though, it was about all of us. And this, this is also about all of us, whether you want to think that or not."

"Nicky." AJ said it because there was surprise in Kevin's eyes, both now open, and a little bit of worry that Nick shouldn’t have had to be the one to say all that. Brian was nodding slightly, though, and he didn't look taken aback at all. Brian always had known and always would know Nick the best, regardless of the things that sometimes drew them a bit further apart than they had been in the very beginning.

"You're not mad?" Nick was worried.

AJ shook his head. "No, just… I should have known that. I knew that when I came out of rehab, that it wasn't about me, not at all, really."

"You kind of overdid it then," Kevin told him, because AJ had nearly taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Backstreet Order in trying to make amends for his actions while drunk.

AJ smiled, a little. He leaned toward Nick, who ruffled his fingers over AJ's buzz. "I'm sorry you had to tell me all that, that I didn't notice, that I haven't been paying that much attention. I don't think you guys should have known about Sarah, or been able to help and I don't hold you responsible for not having watched out for me, because you did. You…well, I'm still here and there's really not much else to be said on that subject all things considered. I don't know if maybe you want me to blame you, because I did, for a long time, want somebody to blame me, somebody to yell at me and tell me it was my fault because then I could have agreed and everything would have been so much easier. I can't do that for you, all I can do is tell you that I'm getting better and I wouldn't have without you guys here, going into the studio with me, celebrating everyday things like birthdays and the coming of spring and just things that mark time, the passage of it, the reality of it, the fact of it. That's all I can do for you. I wish it were more. I owe you so much more."

"No," Nick disagreed. "That's more than enough. At least, for me."

Howie continued, his words flowing so quickly after Nick's that it was disorienting for them to be coming from AJ's other side, "And I think redoing everything is a great idea. I know I'm glad for the chance to clean up some of my suckage."

Orlando woke up then, screaming plaintively in AJ's ear. Brian and Kevin said at once, "Motion seconded."

Brian slid Sarah into Howie's arms and got up to take Orlando from AJ, "But yes, I'm in agreement with everyone else so far."

Carolina woke up in response to Orlando's cries and joined in with some of her own. Kevin sat up and transferred her to his shoulder. Sarah was awake as well, listening with wide-eyed wonder. "Listen, two-part harmony," was Kevin's only comment, but with four out of the five in agreement, it was understood that the decision had pretty much already been made. Only a major problem on Kevin's part would stop the proceedings at that point, and -- standing up, holding Carolina above his head and wiggling her a bit to get her to calm down -- he didn't look too upset about much of anything.

*

AJ waited until he and Howie were in the car on their way back home to half-state, half-ask, "Nick was awfully calm."

Nick and AJ tended to give each other a run for their money on the emotionally instable front. They could both be overwhelmingly loud when they were mad, dramatic when they were upset, and bouncy when they were happy. Nick's quiet, even laying out of the facts for AJ had scared AJ more than Nick yelling for a half an hour would have.

Howie knew what AJ was looking for. "The rest of it was behind the scenes, mostly for your benefit."

AJ wasn't sure if he had the right to know more, but his guilt had no interest in him staying quiet. "What was the rest, D?"

"It's been nearly ten months, Aje. There was a lot of 'the rest.'" Howie's jaw was tight.

"Is this why Brian and Nick weren't talking for most of February?"

"You know how Nick is, he had to take it out on someone," Howie didn't seem too concerned by the fact that it had been taken out on the wrong someone.

AJ knew how the group functioned, he knew that at any given point each of them was willing to stand in for another if it would minimize the hurt or the fracturing within the group. All the same, "I wish something had been said earlier than now."

"I know you do. I know. I need you to believe me when I tell you that this was really the best way for it to be handled, for everyone involved. You're doing better, Nick's doing better, Brian and Kevin and I are all doing much much better. Really, I know you're sitting over there having some kind of McLean Specialty Freak Out, but I wish you'd stop because every once in a rare while the rest of us know how to take care of ourselves and you and this just happened to be one of those times." Howie's voice was less biting than his words, but there was a definite edge of seriousness to it.

They pulled into the parking garage for their building. As the dark of the garage fell over the car inch by quick inch, AJ gave in. "Okay."

Howie peered suspiciously at AJ for a second before turning tightly into their assigned parking place. "Okay? You're not gonna play songs that are better used as background music on 'Dawson's Creek' for three days and send the rest of us large fruit baskets with stuffed giraffes in them or anything like that?"

AJ got out of the car and slammed the door cleanly shut. "A, I do not listen to teen-angst rock, except maybe when Nick writes it. B, the only reason you got a stuffed giraffe was because there was some kind of mix-up with the person who ordered their bouquets after me and were throwing a zoo-themed party. Finally, C, no, I'm not, because I'm tired of talking and feeling guilty and just the sheer and utter seriousness of everything right now. If I need to, I'll get back to feeling like a dick in a week, but for now, if you don't mind, I'm gonna go upstairs, take the meat out of the fridge and use the only kitchen implement in the entire set-up that I am able to without setting things on fire."

Ironically, said kitchen implement was the indoor grill, which Howie was unsure of and preferred to stay as far away from as humanly possible. "Zoo-themed party my ass. Sounds good to me."

"Even the feeling like a dick in week thing?" AJ inquired mildly, because they both knew who would be dealing with mopey-AJ when and if that happened.

"I've been trying to take things as they come for awhile now." Howie stepped into the elevator on the side of the garage, AJ right behind him. He put his arm around AJ's waist and squeezed.

AJ made a small squeaking noise when he couldn't hold it in any longer. Howie didn't even laugh at him.

*

The first thing AJ said to Howie the morning of Friday, October 5th was, "Last year, today was a Thursday."

The guys had scheduled off the date of Sarah's death because Kevin had said it was what he wanted for his birthday. He was vehemently opposed to, "Acting like nothing happened. I don’t doubt that AJ can get himself up and make himself coffee and sing for us, I just don't think he should have to."

AJ had looked around the room, "I don’t think any of us should have to." He had purchased Kevin a year's subscription to National Geographic on the off chance that everyone else took Kevin seriously and decided that was his only present.

In response to AJ's seemingly meaningless opening announcement, Howie walked over to the coffee machine. He thought better of it when he got there. "Fuck it, you feel up to going out?"

"Depends," AJ told him truthfully, "where're we going?"

"Jellies. I want me some hot cocoa with real whipped cream."

Even though it was warm outside, AJ felt just cold enough to smile, "Sounds like a plan." He went to go get his shoes on, grateful for the apartment's carpeting, not wanting to feel the uneasy slide of his feet against wood, to remember running frantically, feeling lost in a house that he had known so well.

Jellies was busy and loud and it was starting to give AJ a headache when Mama J magically appeared and bustled them into the tiny room in back where the employees sometimes lounged on their break. Her smile was as kind as her words, "Nice to see you boys here."

AJ bit his lip and reminded himself that he knew how to go on, how to keep living, had been doing it for a year now. A year and twenty-three minutes. Howie kissed Mama J's cheek, laughed at something she said and ordered their hot cocoas. Mama J ruffled AJ's hair and the rush of sensation was almost too much. AJ fought to keep his tears safe where they could only burn him. Howie stared hard at him after Mama J left, "Maybe we should have stayed home."

AJ shook his head. It took a few deep breaths before he could safely speak, "I was gonna leave anyway. I needed to pick up the flowers for the grave."

"Do you want me to go with you?" The first few times AJ had visited the grave Howie had driven him. AJ had asked him to, afraid of taking the wrong turn on purpose or finding some other direction to drive in on a whim. Howie had always gotten AJ there safely, though, and returned him whole. AJ had been going by himself for nearly eight months by this point, generally once a month, more if he needed to, but Howie thought it couldn't hurt to ask.

Mama J brought their hot cocoas along with everything they usually ordered and a few poppy seed muffins, because she knew they were AJ's weakness. "My treat, boys."

Howie protested ardently but she glared him down, "Just doing my part to make that one smile," she gestured at AJ. AJ looked up and gave her his best imitation smile, the one that had made all the cameras think he was fine for over a year when he was anything but. Mama J wasn't fooled. "A real smile. Eat up."

AJ slowly nibbled at one of the muffins. "I think I'd like you to be there. I want you to come to the grave with me, though."

Howie was used to waiting down by the car. "You sure about that?"

AJ stopped eating for a second. "Do you miss her, D?"

Howie took a sip, respecting the question enough to think about it. "Yes. I miss her, I miss a million things about her. But more than anything, I miss the way you were when the two of you were together. It…those moments overcame everything that should have been hard for me about them, you were just so happy."

"Then why wouldn't I want you to come up to the grave with me?"

"I guess I don’t really think of her as sitting up there watching over me, knowing what I'm doing. Sarah was a good person on the inside, and I think, given the chance, that she would have taken the chance to be guardian angel to a lot of people, would have liked that kind of purpose, but if she was given one choice, out of the millions and millions of people on this earth, the hundreds she knew in her life time, even Liz and Tessa and her mom, she would have chosen you. I feel like your visits to the grave are the times when the bond that still exists between the two of you is at its most tangible and I don’t have much right to interfere with that."

"If she really is sitting up there guarding over me," AJ pulled the words out of himself slowly, he'd had a year to think about the after-life in regards to his wife and for the most part he had strenuously avoided doing so, afraid of what he might discover in respect to his beliefs, "then she sent you to me, because you've been the tangible part of a guardian angel relationship this last year. And like Brian said, the wives, they always find ways to send us back to you guys when they think we can't handle something. I think Sar deserves to see what her work has wrought, don’t you?"

Howie spooned what was left of the whipped cream off the top of his drink. "Not arguing there. Just…thank you for letting me in this far."

AJ concentrated on the task of finishing one of the muffins.

*

There were already flowers on the grave by the time AJ and Howie got there. AJ had ordered a special bouquet ahead of time, one that mixed yellow roses and every color of tulip known to mankind. AJ suspected that a few of the colors in the bouquet had been cooked up in a lab somewhere, but Sarah had liked odd colored things, and tulips had been her favorite flowers, so he didn't take them out. Yellow roses were his favorite flower. Brian, who had been raised by a Southern Belle and took etiquette of all kinds very seriously, continuously reminded AJ that a yellow rose meant friendship, but AJ thought the memory of tucking one in Sarah's hair the night he had asked her to marry him, telling her, "This is friendship, just more," overrode the technical significance behind the flower. He was pretty sure Sarah had agreed, she had gotten the flower pressed between two sheets of silk and had it sewn into her wedding dress.

AJ got down on his knees and put the flowers at the base of the gravestone, next to someone else's mix of daisies. AJ thought they were probably from Liz. Liz was from Louisiana and had the accent to match and Sarah had always called her 'Daisy Mae' with a gentle lilt in her voice. Howie stood at AJ's side until AJ tugged at his hand. Howie came down, his hand staying in AJ's.

AJ traced his fingers over the words 'beloved wife.' He laughed painfully. "I think that if I'd been more able to deal with things when you were doing this, making plans for the funeral and the coffin and the headstone, that I would have chosen something more biting, something she would have grinned at and said, 'yup, that's what I'm saying.'"

"Like what, Aje?" Howie and Kevin had dealt with all the arrangements since both of them had done it before, or at least helped do it, and they didn't want Sarah's mom or AJ to end up having to be in charge. The gravestone was simple and tasteful and Howie knew that AJ appreciated both of those qualities. The saying on it was also one of the ones that the cemetery offered, prefabricated except for the name of the person and the years. Howie and Kevin had both wanted something different, but had felt too uneasy to ask for information from anyone who would know better.

AJ tilted his head. "She would have picked something that made her seem harder than she was. Dorothy Parker, maybe."

"What would you have picked?"

AJ closed his eyes for a moment, remembering the way she could find the cadence of any poem, late at night when she would read to him, her words linking together in an unsung melody. "She loved Frost. She must have written at least a dozen papers on him in college, because she was always talking about something she had learned while writing a paper on him. Or maybe it was just a really long paper. She had her favorites though. 'After Apple Picking,' maybe something from that. Or…no, this: 'They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars -- on stars where no human race is./I have it in me so much nearer to home/To scare myself with my own desert places.'"

"That's…"

"Honest," AJ finished for him. "She was scared. A million other things too, but scared. She wouldn't mind my being honest. She thought honesty to the people who were worthwhile enough to be honest to was the only way to go in life."

Howie peered over at AJ, his expression curious.

AJ turned his face to look at Howie, "I've been pissed off at her a lot lately. It's not fun, or a release, I just feel guilty about it, mostly, but Sherry says it probably had to happen, so I'm trying to let it without being destructive."

"This what the three hour run last week was about?"

AJ had scared Howie, going out for a run and not coming back. Howie had gone out to look for him in the car, found AJ miles away from the house, still running, seemingly unaware that it had grown dark outside. "Yeah. I didn't wanna break anything, or yell at you, so I just…left. I should have left a note," he admitted, apologetically.

Howie hadn't been mad since the first moment after AJ had seen Howie's stricken expression and had hastily murmured, "Shit, sorry, didn't realize how long it'd been."

"It's selfish, I know, but she didn't think about me in this, at all," AJ told Howie. "I mean, the note, it said she loved me, but how could she have if she could still leave me? And when I'm rational, I know, I know she left me because she thought that was better for me, but what kind of fucked up logic is that? I saw that note and I ran through my house unable to breathe, I couldn't draw oxygen into my lungs and I was still running, trying to get to her. She shouldn’t have done that. She should have stayed with me and tried to make things work and yeah, I'm mad that she didn't. Really fucking mad."

"That's okay," Howie wanted AJ to know.

"I left her once, I never told you guys, I went to go visit her and we got in a fight and I turned right back around and came back. But I called her from the fucking plane I felt so bad, and I told her I would never leave her. I promised her that. It was supposed to work both ways, D. We both took those vows. We both promised each other as much of forever as we had. She didn't have the right to renege." AJ was sobbing, hunched over on the ground, his shoulders shaking.

Howie placed his hand in between AJ's shoulder blades, his middle finger aligning perfectly with AJ's spine. "I know baby. I know."

"I hate her for hurting me like this," AJ's words were venomous, dripping into the ground with his tears. "I hate her."

Howie tipped up AJ's chin and looked into his friend's eyes. AJ let go of another broken sob, "I still miss her. Every day. Every second. Nobody tells you that love buries itself inside of you where it can cause internal bleeding if anything goes wrong."

Howie nodded slightly at that, not looking away. "I've heard it's worth the risk."

AJ struggled to take a few deep breaths. "With her it was."

*

Denise finally took Howie up on his offer to visit over Thanksgiving weekend. AJ picked her up at the airport and carried her bags for her, and once they were by the car, where he could stop and put down the bags, he hugged her to himself tightly whispering about how much he had missed her. She let herself be held, grasping on equally tight, not saying anything but making little noises of agreement at everything being said. When he finally let go of her, she looked him straight in the eye and told him, "Well, it wouldn't kill you to hop a plane and visit more often, mister."

Only slightly chagrined, he responded, "Works both ways, missy."

She ruffled his hair and climbed in the car. "Take me to go see Howie, I miss him too."

"Way to make me feel special, mom."

AJ and Howie had scoured the apartment before her visit. It wasn't that either of them were slobs or that Denise was a neat freak, but both of them had an inborn sense of what was appropriate for a parental visitation, nurtured by Jane and Denise's trips over to Europe during the years that they had all been there.

She cooked Thanksgiving dinner for them, making enough that there would be leftovers for weeks. After the dishes had been done, all three of them settled on the couch, Denise and Howie on either end with AJ's head in Denise's lap and his feet in Howie's. He fell asleep like that, the words of the conversation making less and less sense as his mind detached from his surroundings.

He woke up in the morning with his favorite throw wrapped securely around him and the smell of eggs and butter wafting in from the kitchen. He got up, throw and all, and walked over to see what was being made for breakfast. Denise turned around and smiled fondly, "Morning, sleepyhead. Cheesy eggs and toast okay?"

AJ grinned goofily. "You know it is." When he had been young, AJ had tried to get his mom to make that for breakfast every day of the week.

"Sit down, kid."

AJ obeyed his mom and she made up two plates, bringing one to him and sitting down with hers next to him at the table. AJ took a bite then leaned over and kissed Denise, "Thanks." He sat back down. "Sorry I wiped out on you guys last night. I guess I was exhausted."

"It was okay. Gave Howie and me a chance to talk."

AJ finished chewing. "Oh?"

"Don't look at me like that," Denise told him defensively. "You never tell me anything, I've gotta get my info from somewhere. I would suck as a mom if I just ignored you."

"I tell you things," AJ argued.

"You tell me the good things. You never tell me the bad things."

"I don’t want to worry you," AJ protested.

"I'm your mother, dip. I worry whether or not you tell me. And it's worse to worry over the unknown than over the known."

AJ flinched at that, thinking of how many times he had wished there was something they could pin down as the cause of Sarah's depression. "I'm sorry."

"Baby, what-"

"Just something you said made me think of something, mom. I'm okay." He added at her look of doubt, "Really, I'm fine. What did Howie tell you?"

"That you still miss her and sometimes you and Kevin and Nick fight because you feel guilty but you don’t know how to express that without getting pissy and Kevin and Nick don't always get it but things work out in the end. That you spend a lot of time with little Sarah and Howie gets to thinking that you're moving on and handling things but then something will get said and he senses this invisible thread that's holding you back from taking the next step, whatever the next step is."

AJ got up and took the milk out of the refrigerator. He reached up into the cabinet for a glass. "You want some?" Denise nodded. He got out a second glass. "I think…this is gonna sound stupid."

He handed the second glass to Denise and put the milk back where he had taken it from. She stayed silent, waiting. He sat back down. "I'm afraid that if I move on past where I am now, that if I take that last step toward feeling okay most days, thinking of her a lot, but not constantly, not with every breath, considering that she won't be the last person I love in my life, if I do all those things, take those tiny leaps from the way I function right now, that I'm letting her down. It's only really been a year, y'know? I mean, a year, twenty days," AJ glanced at the clock, "an hour and six minutes since she was pronounced dead. Estimated, a year. And it's funny, because I read a whole bunch of pamphlets over at Sherry's on mourning and how it shouldn't be given a time period and the worst thing a person can do as a mourner is listen to people tell them that it's been 'so many months' or 'so many years' and that they should be over it. The guys didn't do that though, ever, and I never had to feel guilty about how long it was taking me to deal with it. Not until I started feeling like I had dealt with it, until the babies were born and life started taking on this wholly different feeling from everything that had come before it. Then I started thinking that it hadn't been long enough. That maybe if the healing is happening this quickly for me that I didn't love her enough in the first place and that's why all this happened. I'm just scared, trying to understand how I really could love her as much as I know I loved her and yet be able and almost willing to move past her in such a relatively short amount of time."

Denise scooted her chair closer to AJ's and cupped his face with her palm. "You have lived a life since you were very young in which there was not a lot of time for anything: grief, happiness, terror, anything. Everything in your world has been compressed in some ways, all your possessions had to fit on a bus for so long, all your relationships had to either span long distances or last a night. What is normal for other people is not normal for you and the four other guys. You can’t go through your life expecting your reactions to things to mirror people who live outside the bubble that your occupation has created for you." She leaned in and kissed his cheek, holding his face to hers for a few moments before straightening up. "I have never known anyone to love the way you do. Not me, or my mother, or any of my friends, or even the other guys. Their love is strong, and unwavering, but yours has a passion added to it that I have never seen duplicated in anyone. Sarah was at the pinnacle of that love for a little over four years. I know I'm your mom and I see things that other people, least of all you, get to see. But how you can doubt that your love was enough is beyond me. I can't understand it and I never will, not even if you spend years trying to explain it. What I do understand is that you are worried about disappointing her, even now. I know because you've always worried about disappointing others. So much so that sometimes you end up doing things that drive you into doing just that. But baby, and I don't say this to be mean, just because it needs to be said. Sarah is dead. You are still alive. And you have got to let that be, let yourself live. If she would want anything different then she didn't love you enough, not the other way around. Am I…is that clear?"

AJ got up and nudged his mom over so that he could sit on the edge of her chair and curl up into her arms. He was hanging off the end of the chair, uncomfortable, but safe in his mom's hold when he nodded, his head moving against her shoulder. "But knowing something and being able to act on it are such completely different things, y'know?"

She kissed the top of his head. "Yeah, baby, I know, but I've yet to see you not do something you set your mind to."

It surprised AJ that, at nearly thirty years of age, his mom's confidence in him could still make him feel like everything was going to be all right.

*

Lara called AJ and Howie's place on a Monday night. AJ was the first one to the phone. He didn't recognize the number on the caller ID, so there was a healthy dose of wariness in his tone, "Hello?"

"AJ or Howie?"

AJ wasn't telling a female with a voice he didn't recognize who he was, so instead he asked, every bit as abruptly, "Who is this?"

The voice laughed and suddenly he recognized it, "Lara," he chimed at the same time she did, "Sorry," they both said together again, and both of them laughed some more. He finally explained, "You sound different on the phone, and I didn't recognize the number."

"Better safe than sorry," she told him, plainly not upset.

"What's up?" AJ looked over at Howie who had been listening from the "who is this" on.

"I'm gonna just say, before I go into it, that I really debated about whether to call, and I still don’t know if I'm doing the right thing, but I had to do something, so here goes."

AJ frowned slightly, "Is everything okay?" Howie tensed up slightly. AJ walked over and sat on top of him to make him relax a little. He did, with an "oof."

"Mostly. There's really no polite way to say this, so I'm just gonna come out and tell you, you may have noticed that Nick only talks about what's eating at him after being a complete dick for several weeks about it."

This was one of Nick's larger personality flaws. However, given that it was one AJ had shared for quite some time, he felt it necessary to say, "But when he gets around to telling you, it's always really well thought out."

"True. Right now, though, Nick is feeling neglected by you and Howie. He feels like he's being left out by his two best friends in the world, and really -- this is the selfish part of my motivation for calling -- it's fucking with our relationship. Talk to him, or include him more, or something, but I'm begging, get him to stop freaking out, okay? I hate fighting with him over things that have nothing to do with us. I don't even like fighting with him over the shit that does have to do with us."

AJ thought that was a pleasant switch from most of Nick's past girlfriends, but he didn't say anything. "We can do that, hon. No problem. Sorry you had to be the one to intervene."

Lara's, "it's okay," was shaky, but audible. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. We gonna see you around sometime soon?"

"I'm sure," she said, sounding honest.

"Okay, see ya then." AJ hung up.

Howie gasped, "You have to get off me and tell me what just happened, in that order."

AJ tumbled off onto his side before righting himself. "We're gonna call Nick now, and pretend like his girlfriend didn't just call us and tell us that we haven't been paying enough attention to him and he feels left out."

Howie sighed. "Kid is high maintenance." It was a fond complaint.

AJ tucked his feet underneath his body. "If you and Nick moved in together, I'd probably start feeling left out way before a year had passed."

"The possibility of you having a point exists," Howie conceded.

"Sweet of you to say," AJ deadpanned as he hit the button for speakerphone and dialed Nick's number.

Nick picked up before the second ring sounded. "Hey!"

Howie and AJ shared identical winces at the unadulterated excitement in Nick's voice.

*

A month before he actually went, AJ started planning a field trip to the storage units where the guys had put everything he hadn’t wanted to deal with from the house. It was a good three weeks after he had begun planning that he deigned to mention it to anybody else.

He told Howie, because Howie seemed the most likely to go along with him, "I've been, like, girding my loins or something, for three weeks now. I wanted to get it done before the New Year, be all symbolic and shit. Yeah, that didn't happen."

Howie seemed unsurprised by all of this. "How's that going for you now?"

"I think I might be sufficiently girded. Or whatever. Which, uh, doesn't mean that I wouldn't love for you to come with," AJ made a conscious effort to exude his best puppy-dog-at-the-Christmas-dinner-table aura.

The effort was evidently wasted, because Howie didn’t even glance over at him. "I was planning on it, just waiting for you to be the one to say something. Nick might come too, depending on when it is and if he already has plans or not."

AJ wasn't going to fight. Howie might have been his favorite, maybe even more than that, something that couldn't be explained by a simple word like 'favorite,' but Nick was still one of his best friends. "Extra set of hands couldn't hurt."

"That's okay, right?" Now Howie looked over, anxious. "He said we should ask and I said 'why start now' but he could have been right on this one."

"No. You were right." AJ knew that the past year and three months had changed everything but he didn't want it to have changed the freedom the guys had to walk in on his life without asking permission.

Howie changed the train of the conversation. "Do you know what you're going in for? I mean, is there a plan, or is this just something Sherry suggested, or what?"

"I brought it up, actually. Sherry thought it was a good idea so long as I was ready. I think I am. As much as I'm gonna be without waiting ten years, and I don’t really have any guarantees that that'll help, either." AJ spread his hands in the visual equivalent of 'just-doing-my-best-here.'

"Are you taking all the stuff out of storage?"

"Oh hell no," AJ laughed. "Where would we put it? Nah, I want some pictures, stuff that will remind me of her without making me crazy, knickknacks and all. I wanna find the boxes with her clothes and go through them. Anything that didn't have some kind of significance is going to the battered women's shelter that she used to donate to every six months or so. The rest I'm giving to Tessa, because her and Sar were the same size and she'll wear the stuff. There might be some stuff I wanna send to her mom too. I can’t really remember what all's in there. I'm gonna donate a lot of the art to JWR, because Kevin's doing that auction thingie to raise money and I'm relatively positive I just want to start all over again as far as décor goes whenever I decide to do the whole permanently settling down thing again. The rest of the plan sounds a lot like that, donate what I don't want, find good homes for the things that mean something that I have no use for, try and find somewhere to put the stuff I do want or just pack it back up and leave it there until I'm somewhere where I have room for it."

Howie approved. "Sounds like a solid plan."

"Really? Because sometimes things sound good in my head but are actually completely screwy when put into action."

"You probably shouldn't go into it thinking it's going to be as simple as it sounds in your head."

AJ shook his head, "No, I know that. Which is kind of scary, because it sounds anything but simple when I think about it."

"Polly and Angie did it with Caro. I would've helped, but I wasn't there and they didn't want mom and dad doing it. I felt bad about that. Angie called me a lot, it tore her apart."

"She must've been glad you were there to listen," AJ reassured Howie. Howie wasn't one to let guilt eat at him, but Caro's death was a part of Howie outside of his normal self and AJ knew Howie had feelings about his actions while she was dying and for months afterward that would probably never be resolved.

Howie smiled knowingly at AJ. "I'm glad I'm actually here this time."

AJ was forced to admit, "Yeah, me too."

*

Nick ended up coming along and being the one to invent a system wherein there were three empty boxes being filled up at any time. One for stuff that AJ wanted to keep and take out of storage, one for the stuff that AJ wanted to give to friends and family, and one for stuff that AJ wanted to donate. Anything that was being kept in storage was put back in the box being unloaded after the other stuff had been sorted through. It wasn't a foolproof system, but it was the best any of them had come up with and Nick was surprisingly good at getting about three to five more items than should logically fit in any box in one. Then again, he'd been packing and unpacking on a regular basis for nearly two decades.

AJ was moving a lot slower than he'd expected himself to. Howie just clasped AJ's shoulders tight enough to hurt before releasing them, AJ's muscles loosening at the same time. "Take your time. We don't have to finish today."

AJ didn't like to think of himself as someone who needed to wait for permission to do things, but somehow knowing Howie was okay with his actions always made them sit better inside AJ's head.

Kevin and Leighanne had been in charge of labeling the boxes and both of them had done an admirable job. AJ started with most of his stuff, since he felt that it would be the easiest to make decisions on and because there seemed to be a lot more of it. Sarah hadn't been much of a packrat; AJ, when he had finally settled down and gotten the chance to, had taken to the habit of keeping everything so quickly he wondered how he'd managed to keep his life relatively uncluttered until that point.

Howie was good about letting AJ make the decisions for the most part, gently prodding him with a, "You really need that?" or "You have a plan for where to put that?" when AJ was tempted to give into the habit of keeping something for the sake of keeping it.

Nick took them out to lunch at noon, because, "We need to breathe some air that actually carries oxygen in it."

When they got back, it took another hour or so to finish up AJ's boxes. AJ pressed his lips together and pressed the tip of the Exacto into the tape on a box that purported to carry, "Sarah's clothes." He flipped the cardboard flaps over to the side and was hit by the lingering smell of liquid Downy. Howie, who was standing right next to him, commented, "That's some long-lasting detergent."

AJ smiled. "Liquid softener. She loved that shit. It had that little ball that you pour the liquid into. Even after Nicola started doing Sar's laundry, Sar wouldn't let Nic do it if Nic didn't use the liquid Downy. Sar said it made her feel clean in her clothes even when she was filthy." The smell, light as it was, was making AJ dizzy. He closed his eyes.

When he opened them back up, Nick was standing next to him. Howie asked him quietly, "You ready?"

AJ passed his fingers over the top layer of clothing packed, cotton swishing beneath his fingers. There was a blue shirt on top, a shirt he had gotten Sarah one day because he had seen it and liked it and thought she would too. He had made love to her while she was modeling it for him, over the side of the couch, the shirt still on. AJ wondered if that counted as a sentimental enough reason to keep the shirt. He knew that if it did, he would be keeping every shirt, skirt, pair of pants, pair of socks, pair of earrings, anything that Sarah had worn on her body. He had thought, or maybe just hoped, that the sensory memory of his fingertips tracing her jaw, his hands firmly clasping her feet in a massage, his tongue licking where her shoulder bones rose up in a sharp point would fade, become an imprint of pleasure rather than a constant reminder of what was no longer there. If they ever would, though, they hadn't yet, and AJ pulled the blue shirt from the pile, remembering how loud the sound of her giggling had been as he'd tickled her nipples with his breath.

He folded the shirt up carefully, placed it in Nick's hands and said, pretending like he wasn't crying. "We can give this away."

The memory still lingered, even when Nick was out of sight, putting the shirt into another box. Howie hugged him, "We don't have to do this now."

"I'll remember her without reminders," AJ told him, choking on the word 'remember.'

"Oh." Howie reached up to wipe at AJ's eyes for him. "Babe, of course you will."

"This isn't me getting rid of her." AJ was glad he sounded more sure of himself than the moment before and took it as a sign that he should speak some more. "I can't do that."

"No, that isn’t what this is about," Howie reassured him.

"Okay." AJ took a deep breath, coughed on some tears and grabbed another shirt. Sarah had worn it during one of her sets on her last tour. AJ remembered her hesitantly working out the song that had started that set: in the shower, during commercial breaks, while hiking. It had come together one morning when she was working on her email, snapped into place and she hadn't stopped singing for the rest of the day. AJ hadn't gotten tired of hearing the song, not once. "This can be given away as well."

*

Getting everything reorganized and out of storage took a little over two days all told, with plenty of breaks for food, fresh air, and the sake of sanity on all their parts. AJ called the women at the shelter immediately and asked, "If it's at all possible, could you maybe pick this stuff up soon?" not wanting to change his mind about anything.

A woman who looked much too tiny to move kitchen utensils let alone large boxes showed up and carried more down to the car from their apartment than AJ and Howie put together. She thanked them profusely for the donation, reminded them that the shelter did a yearly drive if they found anything else they wanted to give and drove off in a truck so big she had to sit on a phone book to see over the dash.

AJ invited Tessa over for dinner and was glad when she accepted even though they hadn't talked all that much since Sarah's death. Howie made the chile rellenos casserole, as it was the dish he was most confident of his ability to make well. Tessa ate three servings while convincing AJ that she really was doing fine. "How are you?" She finally asked, when Howie was dishing out equal servings of cinnamon ice cream into three bowls.

"I am..." AJ gave the question some thought, "moving on. Some days that feels good and some days it feels awful, but I'm told that it's for the best when all's said and done."

"So I hear," Tessa's expression was enigmatic, her smile conveying more than mere understanding. "I'm sorry, by the way. I've meant to call and say that for awhile now, just haven’t gotten around to it. She would've wanted me to make sure that you were okay, to make sure that Liz was okay, for that matter, and we just started really hanging out again three or so months ago. I just kind of…went a little bit crazy after. Didn't even talk to my family for months and months until my older brother flew down scared witless to make sure I was really still alive. That woke me up." Her eyes shadowed over a bit and she explained, "It was easier to call Liz than it was to call you. I was relatively sure I knew what she was going through. We were both terrified that you hated us, thought we should've seen something that would have saved her or been better friends or something. We couldn't even begin to imagine how we would feel about us if we were in your place."

"Thinking the same thing, only with you guys hating me. After all, I was co-joined in marital agreement with her, if anyone was going to be pinned with the blame, I would have to assume it was me." AJ put a hand on Tessa's knee. "I'm sorry, too. As much as she would've wanted you here, that responsibility was laid at both our feet, and neither of us really did a sterling job responding to it. I'm glad you're here now though. I already said that, so, there's me saying it again."

Tessa took all four boxes out to her car with AJ and Howie's help at the end of the evening, promising to either wear them or give them to her younger sister, who would also fit in them. AJ, on his part, promised to call both her and Liz sometime in the next week just to check up on them and chat. She kissed his cheek before driving off, "She always loved you best when you were happy. I don't think her being dead changes that."

AJ had been too emotionally exhausted by the entire evening to think about what she might be telling him beyond the basic, general, 'go forth and find your happiness, young man,' theme. Instead, AJ stumbled back upstairs and looked at the boxes left. AJ and Howie had left anything of Sarah's that AJ hadn't been sure what to do with in storage, along with the stuff of AJ's that he didn't immediately care to have. By this point, all the boxes that were to be given away had been, leaving only the stuff that AJ had decided to add to the belongings he already had in the apartment.

Howie herded AJ out of the hallway and into bed. "Problem for tomorrow," he insisted.

AJ didn't resist, entirely sure that when he woke up in the morning, Howie would still be there to help him figure it out.

*

Howie was still there in the morning, crunching on Grape Nuts without milk, a personal favorite of Howie's that AJ had tried to understand time and again despite repeated failures. This particular morning he chose to bypass his habit of trying the first bite without milk and just poured part of the freshly opened jug of milk in along with the Grape Nuts, which were still sitting out for his convenience.

AJ put the milk away. "I think we can get one of these boxes at least started on before we have to be at the studio. We're booked at one today, right?"

Howie stood up to wash his empty bowl out. "Yup. Do you have any idea of where you want any of this stuff to go?"

"I didn't even want to think about it without consulting you. I mean, I know some of it's gonna go in my room, but the rest I need your input on, seeing as how you were still paying half the rent here, last time I checked."

Howie turned the water off. "I don’t mind your sprawl, I wouldn't have invited you in if I did."

The crunch of AJ's cereal was loud in his ears and he barely heard Howie's words. He heard enough to recognize the sound of exhaustion. AJ glanced at Howie's back. Howie was leaning up against the counter, his shoulders forced high and the muscles surrounding them strung tight. AJ set his cereal bowl down and walked to Howie, wrapping his arms around Howie's midriff and pulling him back, into AJ's chest. "Hey."

"I've been having dreams, they wake me up, I can't go back to sleep." Howie said by way of answer to AJ's unasked question.

"What kind of dreams?" AJ inquired.

"I don't remember them."

AJ had known Howie long enough to snap back, without thinking for a second that he was reading the situation wrong, "Don't lie to me."

Howie started to laugh, but not like he actually found the situation funny. "Okay, y'know what, Aje? I won't. They're wet dreams, like a thirteen year old boy. Remember when Nick had his first one and he was freaked out because they didn't have sex ed in his school district yet, at least not sex ed that was in any way educational? And he didn't know who to go to about it? Like that."

AJ felt sick to his stomach. He remembered. Nick had been scared out of his mind thinking that something was wrong with him, that he was a freak. It had taken both of them nearly an hour to get him to calm down and breathe normally again. "D. That's…wet dreams are-"

"Normal, I know. The analogy wasn't perfect." Howie's voice was thick, frustrated.

AJ had heard that tone of voice before. "Oh. The dreams. They're about me." It wasn't a moment of conceit, just one of realization.

"Yes," Howie bit out harshly, "and if you wouldn't mind, could you let go of me?"

AJ considered the question carefully. He thought about whether it was physically possible for him to unlatch his hands and allow Howie to step out of his arms. He was pretty sure it was if he could get his mind around the idea that doing that might be letting go of something much larger, of the surety that Howie would be somewhere near every morning for the rest of AJ's life if AJ needed that. AJ knew he would never leave, not unless Howie asked him. Which, he supposed, Howie was doing. AJ unlocked his fingers and was about to let them slip away from each other when he stopped, "What if I did mind?"

Howie's voice broke as he answered, "Then I would let you hold on."

"I-" AJ pulled his fingers back tightly together in an effort to hold his own hand, "If I told you that I wanted to hold on, wanted to give you what you want and what I think I want, I'm almost positive I want but I'm terrified of wanting, would you mind so very much if I held on?"

Howie's breath shook. "I don’t understand, AJ."

"Everybody's been telling me that she would want me to be happy, she'd want me to live, to move on, to breathe. I've been scared to for so long, and I still am. Shaking in my boots, Kevin would say. But you're standing here, in my arms, and I want you to turn around and kiss me, want it more than I ever wanted it way back when we were kids and I was jailbait and you were beautiful. I was stupid and impatient then and I didn't wait long enough. If I had we'd have been together and all this would have never happened, but I can't regret her. I don't want to regret her. We're going to be better for all of that, I know we are, even if I freak out a lot and you have to stay still and wait for me to come back, or sometimes even chase after me. I apologize in advance for the fact that maybe I'm not quite ready for this yet, but it has to start now. Everything has been about me for so long and now I need it to be about you. You need it to be about you."

"You think this because you've grown into the comfort of living with me. You need to go stay with Nick for a bit, regain your bearings, rethink this." Howie gently struggled to get past the barrier of AJ's arms.

"I think this because I've discussed it with Sherry and my mom and Kevin and Nick and Brian, all of whom asked different questions about co-dependence and fear of being alone and post-suicide trauma and a million other things. And whatever my answers were to them, they must have been right, because they all agreed, that now it was just time to wait for the right moment, the moment when I knew I could take that next step and say, 'okay, let's do this' -- not try this, do this. That's now. Even with all the uncertainties, that's now."

Howie, who was still being held hostage, turned around, leaning back to look up at AJ. "I can wait, Aje. I can wait for this. I never thought I would get it. I waited for years and years thinking I was waiting for nothing. I can wait for what I know is really something."

AJ released his arms, but only to anchor them on the counter, directly next to Howie's hips, trapping the smaller man between them. "Good. Because in a way you're going to have to. There's a million things that I remember as being part of a relationship that I can't do just yet. I'm giving into this now because I'm tired of fighting against telling you I love you and having you know that I don’t mean it the way I mean it with the other guys, because I want to sleep in your bed and invite you into mine sometimes. I'm tired of pretending that the feel of you -- your fingertips, your hair, your breath, you -- isn't everything to me, as much as it is to you. I'm tired of pretending like the scales of this relationship are uneven when they aren't. I can stop lying to myself and to you and even to Sarah now and start rebuilding what I used to think of as life. Let me do that. Don't make me wait."

Howie reached up, putting a palm to AJ's cheek. He didn't hold back the soft sigh of happiness as AJ turned his head just enough to kiss the inside of Howie's palm. "You have to tell me if you ever want to stop, because I won't. And I don't want that to keep you from living. My presence shouldn't do that anymore than her absence."

"You're not taking advantage of me in my weakness, Dorough. If anything I'm doing that to you, asking you for patience beyond what any man should rightfully have to exercise," AJ pointed out, slightly exasperated. Howie had a tendency toward the overly noble.

Howie ducked his head, smiling. "Thirty seconds into being us and I'm already pissing you off."

AJ peeled one hand off the counter and brought Howie's chin up with it. He pressed his lips to Howie's in a chaste, and yet somehow intense, kiss. "I find it cute, which is how I know this is okay. I wouldn't make a mistake on this, D. Not with you. Maybe with anyone else in the world, but you matter too much for that, please, believe me."

Howie let the word, "Always," fall from his lips and allowed both of them to feel the tiniest flash of hope that it pertained to the entire situation.

*

"Ugh!" Nick threw his hands up after they stopped taping. They were on their eighth take of one particular line of harmony and no closer to the way they wanted it to sound than when they had started. "The fuck, guys?" Nick glared at AJ and Howie.

"Sorry, sorry," AJ tried to placate the guys with apologies, which wasn't working, because over to his side Howie was grinning and AJ didn't feel all that sorry for causing that.

Howie attempted a straight face, "We'll get it right this time."

"Perhaps," Kevin suggested helpfully, "you could put off acting like lovesick monkeys until we finish this song."

Howie stiffened a bit. AJ glanced over at him, but Howie was refusing to meet his gaze. "Not acting, Kev. Being."

Brian slipped off the edge of his stool and it took him a few steps to regain his balance. "Okay. You know what? I think we're gonna have this conversation before we start taping again, so that we might actually get something done today." Brian waved at the techs in the booth who were pretending that they weren't paying attention, "Go take...thirty." He turned back to AJ, "If someone has to pay them off, take three guesses who it's gonna be."

"Rok," Howie looked straight at Brian. "Calmate." Howie sometimes spoke basic Spanish when he was close to freaking out. According to him, it made him concentrate more on what he was saying. AJ had never really thought about it before, but now it was kind of sexy. In the absence of anything to bang his head on, AJ bit the inside of his lip.

When Brian had seated himself on the stool again, Kevin took charge of the conversation. "How long, uh, have we been missing out?"

AJ brought his wrist up so that he could see his watch. "About six hours. Which is probably why I'm still leaning toward the overwhelmingly obvious with everything. That could take a while to slack off."

The other guys nodded in unison at this. They had always been able to tell who AJ was crushing on, from JC Chasez when he was sixteen all the way up through Sarah, because he held very little back on the emotional front. AJ had been amazed that they hadn't noticed him crushing on Howie until he'd talked with each of them about it, it was a testament to just how unsure of everything he was inside himself that there had been no outward indications. He was glad they had caught on so quickly to the fact that things had changed, it made him feel more normal, like his world had been broken, but someone was deftly pulling it back together, making the pieces come together like a particularly complicated puzzle being solved. He suspected Howie of being the someone.

Nick asked quietly, "You were gonna tell us, right?"

Howie rolled his eyes, "Well, yeah. Like you're one to talk, how long did you like Lara before we got to hear about her, huh?"

Nick pleaded the fifth.

"That's what I thought," Howie rubbed his victory in.

Kevin shook his head fondly. "Now that you've got that out of your system, do you think the two of you could record for a few hours without getting distracted by each other's mere presence?"

AJ took one look at Howie and decided he was making no promises. "Probably."

Kevin took what he could get and focused his gaze on Howie. "D?"

"Uh. Most likely?" Howie sounded less sure of himself than AJ.

Brian laughed. "It's a good thing I've been praying for you guys since the dawn of time, because I think I'd want to kill you otherwise."

Nick sympathized with Brian. "Disgustingly. Cute." Later, when Nick thought AJ was actually paying attention to AJ's upcoming solo, Nick gave Howie a thumbs up. Howie glowed a little brighter even than before, and AJ basked without letting on that he had been privy to the moment.

*

AJ refused to let being Howie's boyfriend be any different from being his friend in the way that they operated around the apartment. He wasn't ready to alter the ease with which their communication took place or the way that they had of not stepping on each other's toes. Their system for being in the same space was a working one, and AJ didn't need to try to improve upon that, even in the face of the massively changing surface description of their relationship to each other. If they had been normal, AJ thought, things might have been different, but normal didn't usually include two people already living together by the time they decided things might work out for them, or knowing each other for nearly two decades before the simple fact that they could be good together was brought to their attention. As it was, AJ wasn't going to worry about normal, there were enough things to worry about without adding that to the list.

AJ made linguini noodles with Alfredo sauce from a can. Howie washed the dishes. AJ settled on the sofa and turned on the History channel before deciding that he couldn't handle learning any more about Hitler than he already knew and switching to TBS, which was airing "Dirty Dancing." Howie liked that movie and all AJ wanted was not to have to think, so he threw the remote aside and waited for Howie to join him.

Howie came in a few minutes later, hands still smelling like anti-bacterial potpourri. He grabbed a throw from one end of the couch and maneuvered AJ just enough to wrap both of them in it. Howie watched the movie distractedly, his hands petting different areas of AJ's skin slowly, waiting for AJ's implicit consent that Howie's touch wasn't too much, too soon, too unwanted. AJ stayed still, allowing the exploration, taking pleasure in Howie's tiny noises of happiness from just touching AJ, just being given permission to dip his fingers below AJ's waistband and over the smooth curve of his hipbone. Somewhere inside AJ's head it occurred to him that it was dangerous for Howie to have this kind of love, when AJ had no idea what his love looked like or felt like or anything beyond the fact that it was there. He wanted to touch Howie as well, but Howie had waited longer, been more patient, deserved this more.

Howie touched his lips to AJ's jaw going still, not breathing until AJ bent his head and breathed into Howie's mouth for him. AJ hooked one hand around Howie's back, anchoring the smaller man to himself and kissed him. Howie's mouth was warm and soft and barely mobile against AJ's, letting AJ take the lead. AJ pulled back and waited for Howie to come after him, and when Howie did, he opened AJ up with his tongue, tickling against the roof of AJ's mouth, swiping and coming up hard against AJ's tongue. He pressed AJ into the couch, not bothering to come up for air as he straddled AJ, placing their cocks in direct contact with each other, barring a few layers of clothing. AJ moaned into Howie's mouth and Howie laughed, the two sounds meeting inside of them.

Howie hooked one hand firmly around the back of AJ's neck and drew back just the tiniest bit to suck on AJ's lower lip until AJ used his free hand to force Howie's mouth back into direct contact with his. AJ's lip felt about three times its normal size and when Howie scraped his teeth against it as a parting gesture, AJ nearly came right then. Instead he groaned into Howie's mouth and attacked, grinding himself up against Howie, sucking fiercely against Howie's tongue, pulling Howie so close into himself it was a miracle Howie could still work oxygen through his lungs.

They came that way, plastered together, fully clothed, making out like fifteen year olds. AJ was last, Howie already slumping over on AJ's chest, his breathing loud and wet. When AJ felt safe speaking again he croaked, "I need a shower."

Howie made him a deal. "I'll let you up if you come to my bed afterward."

The hand that had been stroking Howie's back stilled.

"Just to sleep, Aje. This was as much as either one of us could take for one night," Howie reminded him. "I just don’t want you alone after this, that's all. I wouldn’t want you alone even if I wasn't the person you had done it with."

AJ resumed stroking. "Okay, you have yourself a deal."

Howie tumbled rather ungraciously to the floor. It took AJ several minutes to do anything that required more coordination than that.

*

Howie wasn't in bed yet by the time AJ came. The shower wasn't running, so AJ crawled in under the covers and made himself wait patiently. Howie emerged seconds later, bringing the smell of ginger shampoo and baking soda toothpaste with him into the bed. AJ didn't move, so Howie went to him, lying close enough to almost be touching AJ. "You okay?"

"It was perfect, D," AJ told him, in the lightest voice he could manage.

"Yeah, but that's not what I asked."

"Trust you to choose this moment to become a stickler for meaning," AJ twisted away from Howie. Howie didn’t follow. He didn't have to, AJ could still feel him, not even inches away.

"She had to have been the last person who touched you like that," Howie said, sounding surprised at his own words.

"Right before," AJ admitted through a jaw so clenched he could barely understand himself. "Right before she said she loved me and then left me a note telling me it wasn't enough. Right before that."

"This doesn't change…" Howie considered what AJ might need to hear and settled on, "what that meant. It doesn't change what the two of you were, or how much you miss her or even who you are now."

"I want it to change who I am now," AJ responded fiercely. "I want it to mean there's improvement in me, that I'm becoming someone who deserves something like this."

"You were always someone who deserved something like this," Howie told him softly. "If this changes anything, then maybe it's your ability to understand that. If that's true, I hope you’re right, I hope it does change things."

"It didn’t feel dirty." AJ turned back to Howie, his eyes large and pleading even in the dark. "I thought…not that you were dirty, not at all, but that maybe I was, that maybe that 'death do us part' thing only counted if the death wasn't a chosen act on one of the partner's sides, and that I was breaking my vows, that maybe she was supposed to be the last person to touch me like that, to feel me all the way through. But I think I was confused, or just plain out wrong. Those vows are only good when they are kept as a two part deal and there is no other part anymore. I'm free. And it wasn't dirty, it isn't dirty, or a betrayal, and I just have to find the space in my head where I believe everything I'm saying, everything I keep telling myself."

"Do you need us not to be together until then?" Howie asked, without a hint in his voice that he was less than confident of AJ's abilities to do all these things.

AJ moved the inch or so that it took to press his body up against Howie's and spoke his next words against the tiny tip of cartilage around Howie's ear, "No. I don’t think that's necessary at all. Avoiding it isn’t going to make it seem any less scary. If anything, I think it will make the situation worse."

Howie kissed the cheek AJ had made readily available and threw an arm over his body, snuggling in to fall asleep for the night.

*

AJ woke up before Howie, left a note on the bathroom sink, and drove over to Kevin's. He let himself in and stole through the apartment to the nursery. AJ settled himself in the rocking chair, waiting for the first sounds of an indignant waking baby. Sarah woke first, which AJ had been expecting. Sarah was the more feisty of the two and spent more of her time awake. AJ picked her up before she could scream and wake her parents up. She squealed at him loudly anyway and he shushed her as he made his way to the changing table.

The changing took awhile, Sarah unwilling to stay still even for a second. AJ tickled her and blew raspberries on her feet and she made as much noise as she possibly could. AJ had given up on Kristin's and Kevin's sleeping through this, he just hoped they would recognize happy sounds for what they were and not get out of bed.

AJ picked Sarah up and the two of them made their way to the kitchen. Kristin had tried breast-feeding both of the twins for the first couple of weeks, but the dual need was creating undue stress on her body and she had gone to a split feeding system that the doctors had recommended, still breast-feeding for some of the meals and using formula for others, so as not to harm herself.

AJ took one of the formula bottles from the refrigerator and heated it up, testing the milk on his skin before letting it go anywhere near Sarah's mouth. Sarah latched onto the nipple of the bottle when it was offered, and AJ wouldn't have been willing to bet on his ability to disengage it from her mouth if need be. Her tiny hands came up and tried to latch on to the hand he was holding the bottle with. Her motor skills not being fully developed, her hands slid along his more often than actually grappling it. AJ felt like he was being petted.

When she had finished, AJ rinsed the bottle out and stuck it on the drying rack. He looked down to see her peering up at him expectantly. "What, miss? What do you want?"

He brought her up to his shoulder to be burped. She gave in easily and loudly, and AJ grinned at her, "You sound just like your Uncle Nick."

She gurgled at him, obviously still wanting something. AJ walked into the living room and found the nearest toy. It was on the floor so he went back into the kitchen to rinse it with hot water and dry it off. When it had cooled back down to room temperature he handed it to her. She threw it across the room with a squawk. "That's not what you wanted, huh?"

Sarah screwed her face up and AJ could tell she was fixing to cry. Before he had even really thought about what he was doing, AJ started singing. He sang the Janet Jackson song that had been stuck in his head all morning, and "I'll Never Break Your Heart," and Billy Joel's "My Life," because Howie always sang that one when he was stressed out. She was asleep half-way through the song, but AJ didn't stop, finishing that one and going on, making his way through some Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Ma Rainey and, finally, one of Sarah's songs, the one she had written for them and almost not released, saying it was too private, too much a part of herself. AJ had talked her into releasing it, explaining, "The rest of the world deserves to have that kind of talent shared with them. I get it every day, give them a few minutes."

A cry from down the hall coincided with his last few notes and AJ listened to the sound of feet shuffling across the carpet, the abrupt, surprised stop to the cries. The low murmur of Kevin's speaking voice traveled to where AJ was sitting. AJ had always thought that Kevin's daddy tone of voice would sound identical to the way Kevin sounded when he was reprimanding one of the guys, or telling them something they needed to know for their own good. It didn't though, not even remotely. AJ wondered how special someone had to be in someone else's life to command a part of his heart completely separate from that of his children.

Kevin shuffled in, Carolina held protectively in his arms. He saw AJ on the couch and smiled. "I was wondering where she had got to."

"Hope it didn't worry you." AJ got up carefully, so as not to wake Sarah, and followed Kevin into the kitchen.

Kevin set to getting Carolina some breakfast. "What are you doing here? I mean, not that I don't appreciate the call of my own flawless offspring, but I figured you would still be cuddling up with someone we may or may not both know."

Carolina made a sound oddly similar to a pissed off bumblebee. Kevin tested the milk before sticking the bottle in her open and waiting mouth. "All right, all right. Pushy this morning, are we?"

"She knows her sister already got served." AJ cupped his hand over Sarah's head protectively. "I just wanted to remind myself that I'm making the right choices. I always remember that when I'm near these two and Orlando."

"So things between you and D haven’t taken a sudden turn for the dramatic?" Kevin wanted to be reassured.

"No," AJ stated. "We talked about stuff last night. Well, first we made out, and then we talked, mostly because we made out. But we're okay. He's a good listener, and I've developed my skills at talking about things that actually matter."

Kevin stuck Carolina's bottle in the sink and shifted her to bounce her up and down on his shoulder. She made him wait for a series of dainty burps. He left her on his shoulder, as she didn’t seem to be all that unhappy with the position. "It's a big step. For both of you," Kevin commented. "I don't know if I was expecting it or not. Hoping, but not expecting."

"Hoping?" AJ kissed the top of Sarah's head because it was there and soft and perfect.

"For you to heal. For him to get what he wanted. For it to work out in a way that didn't make the rest of us feel left out."

"This is just beginning, you don't know that any of that is going to happen."

Kevin nodded, laughing as Carolina shifted her head and blew warm breaths over his neck. "No, but I know it could happen. I know you want it to and Howie wants it to and all three of us surely want it to. That's a lot of determination to be flying in the face of."

AJ had heard that before, so many times, from studio execs who didn't think they had a shot on the charts and lawyers who thought they were doomed to play out their careers under the thumb of people who would let them die to make a few dollars, to critics who talked about shifting markets and management companies who listened. "We’re good at that."

"Only when we're trying. We're good at what we put ourselves into. In this case, that's gonna be making things work. They will, you'll see."

It was hard not to believe Kevin when he was calmly holding a life that he created on just one of his shoulders, smiling and looking completely sure of the fact that he was right.

*

"Do you ever think about what they're saying about the album?" Howie had insisted on taking AJ out on a date, an evening with classy-but-discreet written all over it.

AJ hadn't protested much but when they'd gotten to the restaurant, both of them had a hard time figuring out what to say. AJ was mildly surprised by Howie's eventual choice of a conversation path. "They who?"

"They-the-media. They-the-people-at-Jive. General The Man type theys."

"Oh, Them." AJ wrinkled his nose, thinking. "At first, I just wanted to know that bad things weren't being said about Sarah or that her death wasn't being exploited. You guys took care of that as much as you could so that I wouldn't have to worry, which I probably never said thank you for, but it was appreciated. Then I was too busy paying attention to me and you and Nick and the babies and everything I thought -- still think -- was more important than what was being said about us. It's only recently that I've even started noticing what the buzz is."

"The buzz is that we're washed up and we've just never stopped to take notice," Howie laid it out on the table, wanting an answer to his original question.

AJ watched intently as their waitress approached and set down their dinner salads. She cracked some pepper over each plate and vanished again. "I love performing, D. I love the rush of it, the attention from so many people that I can barely see but I can feel more deeply than almost anything. I like stadiums, the noise of them, the heat of arenas even in the winter. I like clubs, though, too. I like looking at the faces of people who are singing along, dancing a little, paying attention to nothing else but us. Big performance or small, I enjoy being up there. Do I think this album is gonna sell the way the last four did? No. In and of itself, I think that signifies that I'm not completely unaware of our status in music at this moment. Do I think the album won't sell at all? That we won't be able to mount a tour, even a small one? I'm gonna have to go with no again here, because I have a hard time believing that nobody in the world will want to hear what we have to say on this album."

AJ picked up his fork and stabbed indiscriminately at a couple of pieces of lettuce. "Every time we go into the studio I'm glad that we started over again when I asked us to, glad we took time to get in the song that you and Nick wrote about Sarah, the one that Brian and Kevin wrote about the babies. I'm even glad, conflicted as I feel about it, that we're doing Sarah's song." Howie and AJ had reworked a song that Sarah had just finished writing before her death and never gotten to sing, expanding it to have five part harmony.

"Somebody's got to want to hear all that. Hear how good we sound singing it, because we do. I've never heard us like this before and it's a little disconcerting and neat all at once. I don’t care if the people who want to hear us are the critics and the reporters or not, those people suck at concerts anyway. I want it to be children of the people who were kids themselves when 'Quit Playing Games' hit the charts, and fans who have been with us for fifteen years, and new people, who are listening to the radio one day and go, 'wow, that's a neat sound.' That's what I want. Maybe I worry that the media is right and that I won't get that, but I don't listen to them, I don't believe them because they don't understand about us and our lives and what this is all about."

AJ pointed at Howie with his fork, salad and all. "They don’t know that I love you because of the little things like your absolute and complete loyalty to Aveda hair products and the big things like the way you kiss me before we go to sleep and say, 'tomorrow's gonna be even better,' regardless of how the day went. They don’t know that Kevin let Nick pick out the girls' entire wardrobe because he felt left out of the whole baby thing, or that Brian brings Orlando to the studio nearly every day because he wants his son to grow up with the sound of all five of us in his ears."

AJ brought his fork to his mouth and ate the lettuce. "That what you were looking for?"

"I'm not exactly sure what I was looking for, I just wanted you to tell me the truth." Howie said slowly, still processing. "I'm not sure I was expecting that much… optimism."

"I don’t know if it's optimism. I just know that we always come back to each other after we're done leaving for one reason or another. None of us has ever stayed away for longer than the rest of us could handle. I don’t think what They're saying has anything to do with us. I think we have everything to with us. As long as we're fine, the two of us, the five of us, things'll work themselves out. You lost a sister and made it through, I lost a wife, we almost lost Brian, we nearly lost the core of ourselves after Black & Blue when we were all tired and dispirited and disconnected. We came back together, though. This album is a testament to that, maybe a little bit late but every bit as valid as it would have been the day after we realized it was time to stop fooling around and do what we do best again. The majority opinion doesn’t change any of that."

Howie reached across the table and grabbed the hand that AJ wasn't using to hold his fork. "You make it easy to love you no matter how much you change."

AJ squeezed Howie's hand. "I think you're just more flexible than most."

*

It took them twice as long as usual to get the tracks for Sarah's song laid down. The final tracks weren't perfect. Nick sounded wobbly on a few of his solos, AJ's harmony line was just a little too husky and Howie, Brian and Kevin all came off to be working too hard at getting their notes out. When the techs played it back for the gazillionth time, though, AJ observed, "It sounds honest," so they kept it.

They had waited until last to do Sarah's song, waiting until they were all hopefully ready to handle it, knowing in reality that moment had a possibility of never really arriving. When they walked out of the studio at nearly three in the morning after having finished the song, all that was left to do with the album was accomplished with machines. Nick was producing a lot on the album, so he would probably be intimately involved in the last stage, but the rest of them would leave it in his hands and those of the technicians that had actually stayed with them throughout the nearly two years it had taken to create the album.

Howie drove AJ and himself home and the two of them stumbled all the way to AJ's room, which was closer to the front door, before falling asleep, shoes still on.

Howie was the first one to wake up at nearly one o'clock the next day. He pulled AJ's shoes off his feet, tucked him under the covers and went to go run himself a bath. Unless Nick or one of the other guys at the studio called to say they were needed, they had at least the next week off. After that they would need to begin scheduling publicity events, thinking about a tour, penciling in casual face time, but this week was theirs.

AJ padded into the steam-filled bathroom fifteen minutes later, when Howie had just thrown his clothes into the hamper and was stepping into the bath. Howie twisted his neck around. "Wanna join me?"

AJ nodded, then took his time undressing. He grabbed his toothbrush and scrubbed for the requisite minute before rinsing out his mouth and only then climbing in the tub and settling in the V of Howie's legs. The tub wasn't overly large, but neither were AJ and Howie, and the two of them fit comfortably inside it pressed up against each other, water lapping over their hipbones.

"I've always liked this part," Howie mumbled, "in between being finished and just beginning."

AJ cupped his hands and sprinkled some water over his chest. "It used to make me nervous. Right now it's feeling kinda par for the course."

Howie kissed AJ's shoulder. He grabbed the soap from the dish on the side of the tub and lathered his hands well. He replaced the soap and then kneaded it into AJ's skin, starting with the shoulders, which Howie massaged for a long while, moving his hands down so that his fingers were pushing and working at the muscles around and underneath the shoulder blades and lining the spine. Occasionally, Howie reached for more soap, pushing AJ farther forward until he was on his stomach in the tub, propping his front end up on his elbows, his legs splayed wide around where Howie knelt, still working steadily downward over the ass and thighs and calves until he reached AJ's feet. Howie spent several minutes on AJ's feet, grinning at the mix of groans and giggles massaging that part of AJ's anatomy caused the other man to release. Howie reached up to AJ's hips and firmly guided him to his other side, so that AJ was facing up, and went back to his task, working upwards this time until he reached AJ's neck.

When Howie had finished, he made sure the soap was washed away, soothing his hands over AJ's skin everywhere. Howie stood up and got out of the tub before bending down to pull AJ up and out gently by his arms. AJ blinked at him, "You aren't gonna wash yourself?"

"I did it while you were being anal-retentive about dental hygiene."

"Hi, pot. I'm kettle. Nice to meet you." AJ kissed Howie lightly, pleased to note that Howie's breath did indeed smell of baking soda and mint. Howie was a survivor of years of orthodontic work and felt that to not brush his teeth after every meal and floss at least once a day was an extreme betrayal of his parents financial sacrifice on his behalf.

"I brushed while the water was running. It was an effective use of time that would have otherwise been wasted." Howie's face blossomed into a shit-eating grin and he wrapped the both of them up in the single towel he'd been using to dry both of them.

AJ tried to snuggle in closer. He licked at the still damp patch of skin in the hollow of Howie's neck. Howie tossed the towel aside and took AJ's hand. They walked back to Howie's room silently. Howie stopped on the threshold and turned back to AJ, eyes inscrutable. "You sure you want to do this? Now? Here? With me?"

AJ took two steps forward, over the threshold, pushing Howie backwards into the room. AJ shut the door behind him, even though they were alone and it was doubtful that anyone would come to bother them. "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes."

*

Howie took his time with things he enjoyed: books, good food, walks in nice places, pretty much anything. He took his time with AJ, pinning AJ's wrists on either side of him while they kissed, Howie lying on top of AJ, sprawled over the bed. Howie waited until he was good and ready to slide down just enough to pop the head of AJ's cock in his mouth and give it one hard suck before sliding his mouth down further, pushing his tongue hard against it. Howie didn’t go down all the way, didn’t even try, letting go of one of AJ's wrists to wrap his hand almost too tightly around the base of AJ's cock. AJ groaned and twisted his fingers in the covers, squirming.

Howie came up after few minutes, leaning back to watch AJ pant. Howie's eyes were filled with awe and just a tiny bit of disbelief and AJ came back to himself enough to say, "I love you," glad that his voice sounded a lot like Howie's expression looked.

Howie whispered, "Can I…?"

They hadn’t discussed sex or making love or any of the details of anything, waiting for the right moment, for both of them to feel ready, but this was the moment and talking wasn't what either of them had in mind. AJ told him what he had never been able to tell Sarah when they had first gotten together, with her needing him to control things if things were to be done without haste and without violence. "Whatever you want, baby." It felt like a beginning.

Howie got up and walked over to his closet, opening the door and poking his head and one hand in. He sauntered back to the bed with a condom and a tube of KY. He settled back on the bed next to AJ, lining their bodies up against each other. Howie kissed AJ again with long, slow swipes of his tongue. AJ allowed his mouth to be taken over, responding passively, letting Howie do as he would. Howie's thumb pressed gently against the tip of AJ's cock and AJ moaned, "D."

Howie played with AJ's cock a little before withdrawing, fooling around with AJ's nipples for a long time while he bit and sucked at AJ's lips, nibbled at AJ's earlobes, scraped his teeth along the unshaven line of AJ's jaw.

When AJ was panting and biting back, Howie asked, "How long's it been since you've done this?"

AJ took a while to find coherency. "A while. After 'Manda and I broke up."

Howie nodded. "Is this okay? You wanna be on your stomach?"

AJ shook his head, "This is okay. You're right here."

Howie opened the condom package and rolled the condom onto his cock. He poured twice as much lube as was probably needed over his fingers and slicked the condom up. "I'm right here." He poured a little more over his still wet fingers and drove one carefully inside AJ, who gasped.

AJ curled the fingers of one hand into Howie's shoulder.

"Talk to me," Howie ordered him gently.

"It's good, I missed this," AJ reassured him.

"Okay," Howie drove a second finger in. AJ bit his lower lip and looked straight at Howie with the widest eyes imaginable. Howie scissored his fingers a bit before crooking them to drive in at an angle. It took a couple of tries before he found AJ's prostate and AJ forced out, "Shit, yeah D."

Howie added a third finger and made AJ scream a few times before taking his fingers out and not giving AJ time to think before he was sliding inside of AJ, steadily and at a moderate pace. AJ moaned and dug his fingernails deeper into Howie's shoulder. Howie wrapped his arm around AJ's waist and pulled AJ closer and closer the deeper he went. He settled completely inside AJ and didn’t wait before pulling half-way out again, angling for the prostate as he went back in. AJ managed to release his death-hold on Howie, only to wrap his entire arm around Howie's shoulders, his leg curving over Howie's thighs.

Howie set a rhythm and didn’t deviate from it, driving in and out of AJ, AJ's sounds perfectly timed to the rhythm. Howie panted against the crook of AJ's neck, muting his own sounds into the damp skin. After a while, he drove harder and deeper into AJ than he had even when first going in, his body stiffening up against AJ, his arm holding on the slightest bit tighter as he orgasmed. AJ wasn't far behind, his cock caught too tightly in between their bodies to need the extra friction of a hand on it.

AJ rolled over onto Howie, his extra weight gaining the favor of gravity in the bonelessness that followed their release. AJ was hyper aware of Howie's breath -- short, but strong and regular -- moving him up and down, just slightly. AJ repeated, knowing Howie would understand that what he was saying went beyond the words involved, "You're right here."

*

Part III: Future

*

Their first appearance on the promotion circuit ended up being on Leno, which AJ approved of as a relatively tame way to climb back on the horse; still, nearly seven years after Rosie had stopped doing her show, AJ couldn't help wishing she was around every time they had to do this again. With her he knew he was going to get a hug going in, at the very least.

AJ shut the door to the dressing room when all the hair and makeup people had left, noted Brian's slightly green color and didn't even bother to let himself feel guilty for being reassured at somebody else's nerves. "I'm not the only one who thinks he's gonna puke in about three seconds, right?"

All four of the other guys shook their heads emphatically. AJ sighed in relief and slumped over Howie. "The new album is fantastic," he said experimentally. The statement was lacking some necessary enthusiasm., it having been replaced with nervousness.

Across from him, Nick started warming up. Kevin and Brian and Howie joined in before AJ remembered how to use his vocal chords. By the time they had gone through one verse of the first single a cappella, someone was knocking on their door, giving them five.

AJ forced himself not to grab for Howie's hand while they walked down the hall toward the recording stage. He reminded himself not to wince at the lights of the cameras as they walked to where Leno was, settling themselves into the chairs, rearranging their limbs until they were confident they looked at ease and pleased to be there. Leno was reseating himself as well. AJ thought he might have exchanged a handshake with each of them.

Leno welcomed them with, "Wow, it’s been a while," which could have been snide, but it wasn't. He had a smile on his face that was about as genuine as anything AJ had ever been able to expect out of someone in the business.

Brian laughed and shrugged in that goofy, charming way he had that AJ kept expecting him to start looking too old to do but he never did. "You know what they say, good things come…"

Leno pulled one of the advance copies that the studio had sent of their album out of his desk and set it out front where the cameras would catch it. "Yeah, I've listened to 'Almost Shattered,' due out in stores on May 28th. Your vocal sound is amazing here, really like nothing we've ever heard from you guys. The music is still very signature Backstreet, I felt, but your sound has changed so much it felt…darker? Is that a word you guys would be comfortable assigning this album?"

Nick gave a little huff of laughter. "Yeah, um, I definitely think this album is darker than our past ones. There's been a lot of whispering about this album, because of it taking so long to make, y'know, almost two years, but there was a lot that went on in our lives during those two years, and the title, 'Almost Shattered' -- we waited until the end to pick that, had a lot of arguments over it -- I think it really tells people how we felt while we were writing and recording and kind of just living through making this album."

Leno nodded, "I have to admit, preparing for this interview was hard for me. I mean, people come to the show expecting me to be funny and make the people in those seats seem funny and I generally like to think that I can with a little preparation, but when I listened to the album, thinking of everything I've heard in the news over the past couple of years about you guys and what I've heard through the grapevine, that kind of thing, I was really stuck for a way to be funny because I almost felt that it would detract from what this album means for you guys."

There was a moment of silence in which each of the guys attempted to formulate a response to that before AJ surprised everyone by being the first one to speak. "I have to say that I appreciate that. It's been a long, long year and a half for me and the guys and I am grateful to you for not belittling that. I want to point out though, that the album's title is 'Almost Shattered.' It's not named that because we didn't ever think of naming it 'Shattered.' We did. We settled on 'Almost' because we felt that 'Shattered' indicated a kind of damage that couldn't be repaired and even though there was a lot of that, the five of us really pulled together and fixed what could be fixed and in the end we all came out of the things that could have destroyed us."

Kevin waited patiently for AJ to finish. He fixed AJ with a look that AJ could only interpret as sheer pride. Kevin turned back to Leno, "I'd also like to point out, as you and the audience probably already know, there have been some great things to happen to us while this album was being put together, some stuff that kind of gave relief to the other things, like the new babies."

Leno grinned, "Yeah, I did hear about that, of course. Do either of you guys have pictures?"

Brian and Kevin both dug up the pictures that they had brought in case anyone asked, pictures they had on them nearly twenty-four seven of late. Leno motioned for the cameras to zoom in and cooed over the pictures for a bit. He joked around about being a father for awhile and successfully made the guys look funny. AJ thought they were funny anyway, but having someone to spar with didn’t hurt.

When the interview was over a fairly painless fifteen minutes later, they were taken backstage to wait until they performed. They sat and drank the water provided to them, silent except for the occasional comment. It didn’t feel like very long before they were being ushered out again. They took their places on the stools provided. AJ waited for the music to start up. When it did there were a few disparate shouts, but overwhelmingly all he could hear was the music and the other guys, the crowd's importance lying in its role as a receptacle, out there only to hear what the guys had to say. A rush of the kind of adrenaline AJ had almost forgotten existed flowed through him.

AJ sang about endings, the fact that they inevitably flowed into beginnings and vice versa. It was trite, but he knew they made it sound otherwise, made the crowd understand that some things were universally true for a reason. AJ let the flow of the music take him through his very last note, when the audience didn’t wait for him to quiet down, drowning his voice with the rhythm of their hands. AJ quieted down and let himself go under.

*

AJ was just beginning to relax, let himself believe he could handle what any publicity stunt threw at him when they did an interview for Entertainment Weekly. The piece wasn't a cover piece, but it was large enough to require a photo shoot, so the Boys had scheduled a full day for the process.

The magazine had insisted they do the shoot first. Brian and Kevin took charge of the shoot, working with the photographer just enough to make her think she was getting exactly what she wanted, but not enough to let any of the guys be made uncomfortable. The photographer was actually pretty easy going compared to a lot of the ones the guys had worked with, and AJ was tricked into thinking it was going to be a fairly breezy day. He wondered later if the people at the magazine who controlled interview scheduling had wanted to make it seem that way.

The journalist who was writing the article came in toward the end of the shoot. He made no move to introduce himself or instigate pre-interview off-the-record-let's-get-to-know-each-other conversation. When they finally sat down to do the interview, he did introduce himself, but when Kevin pointedly held out his hand, the journalist -- Jared -- shook it only reluctantly.

The first questions were easy, cold but inoffensive. Nick and Kevin answered them for the most part, equally cold and inoffensive. After a few minutes of this, Jared switched tactics and looked directly at AJ. "There's a song on this album called 'Underneath.' The credits make it out to be your wife's with some tinkering by you and Howie. You don’t find this at all exploitative of her untimely death?"

AJ's brain stalled for a half a second in the face of Jared's smirk. The words were already filed onto the tape that was rolling, waiting for AJ to feed it an answer, but the expression was just between the two of them. AJ reached over and pressed the 'stop' button on the recorder. "How old are you, you sanctimonious fuck?"

"Excuse me?" Jared's smirk turned to a look of superior disbelief.

"You heard me."

"Twenty-six," Jared's voice was smug. Twenty-six was young for someone to be handed nearly front-page news in a major magazine.

"Two years ago you would have been twenty-four. Just getting out of grad school, maybe?"

Jared nodded, starting to look unsure of where this was going.

"I'm willing to bet you didn't meet Sarah while you were locked in your ivory tower, and you haven't been on the scene long enough to have known her this way. I, having been married to my wife for more than three years and having dated her for over a year before that, knew her pretty well. I loved her even more than I knew her. If you want to insult me without knowing that I will have you demoted to filing mail in people's slots for the rest of your given life, choose another subject than her memory on which to do it. You know nothing about her or me or any of the four other people sitting in this room, and no matter what you think you know about life and this business, I suggest you keep that in your delusional, stuck-up head." AJ leaned over and switched the tape on again, his voice going from coldly furious to congenial in less than three seconds, "Actually, Sarah finished 'Underneath' shortly before her death and so nobody ever got to hear it. For quite awhile, I thought that was just the way it was meant to be, and I pretty much tried not to think about it, because it was too hard, I would hear her every time I looked at the notes and that was tearing me apart. When we scrapped our second efforts on the album, the ones we had recorded almost immediately after Sarah's death, we also went back and took out some songs that we didn't feel really fit who we were anymore, there had been a lot of change in the five of us, our outlook, in a relatively short time. There were holes that had to be filled at that point, and Nick was already writing some stuff, but I was finally at a point where I was ready to have the part of me that was her, still is her, on the album, I felt that to leave it out would be to lie to myself and to my fans. So I talked with the guys about it, and Howie agreed to help tinker with 'Underneath' a little bit, work the harmonies in with me. It's beautiful. I would rather have heard her sing it, definitely, but I know she's totally up there dancing to my version."

Jared kept the questions a little less personal after that and AJ let the rest of the guys do the talking.

*

"You okay?" Howie asked when they were safely back at the apartment. Howie was figuring out which take-out menu he wanted to order from and AJ was changing into lounging clothes, as was their post-interview/appearance routine. "How about pierogies from that Euro-fusion-we-don't-know-what-the-hell-we-are place?"

"Sounds good to me, and yeah, I'm fine." AJ seated himself on the couch next to Howie. "He was being a fuckhead, right? I didn't overreact and make us all look like asses?"

"No, you were great. Very calm. I think Kevin was a bit worried about you suddenly going feral, which would have looked bad no matter who was at fault to begin with." Howie curled his fingers around the back of AJ's neck and pressed them in firmly, trying to release some of the tension that had built up.

AJ leaned his head back, extending his neck over Howie's fingers. He listened to Howie dial the phone with his still-free hand and order enough food for six people even though he knew that neither of them were going to eat that much right then. There would be leftovers for later that way, sitting in the refrigerator waiting for three in the morning to roll around and AJ to climb out of bed starving.

Howie hung up the phone with a resounding beep. AJ said, nonchalantly, "I wanted to kill him."

Howie tossed the phone aside and curled up on the couch, tucking himself against AJ's side. "I was thinking up ways. I had come up with twelve by the time he asked the question that Nick insisted I help answer."

AJ put his arms around Howie, pulling him in closer. "I don’t think he had even listened to the album."

"Oh, hon, that was blazingly apparent, we just didn't make you tune in for all the little red flags he dropped right in front of our feet." Howie sighed and burrowed his head in the slope of AJ's neck.

"I feel about three levels below what you could label a complete dumb-ass." AJ released one of his arms and ran a hand through his hair. "Things were going so well with Jay and Seventeen and even Newsweek, and I say that knowing they were obviously going for an angle that's gonna have us fuming when it hits print. The reporter was nice, though. Respectful and intelligent and you could tell she had actually taken the time to listen and consider what could have possibly been put into an album that took two fucking years to produce. I let myself be lulled, let go of my shell."

"You lowered the shell a bit," Howie corrected. "If you'd let go of it there's no way it would have been so easily accessible today when you needed it. Don't worry babe, you're still a badass."

AJ snorted. "Great." He brought the arm still holding Howie up so as to stroke Howie's hair. "I appreciate you guys trusting me to handle that."

Howie was quiet for a bit before admitting, "Silent agreement."

"Oh?" AJ's hand kept right on stroking, if the guys could trust him to rip reporters apart with his teeth, he could trust them to make decisions about him behind his back.

"You get to deal with all questions regarding Sarah, no matter how you choose to do so, and we will back you up. This means you can go as so far to cause physical damage and we'll probably hold you back after we recover from the shock, but we'll also make it clear that it was provoked. It also means that if you want one of us to deal with it all you have to do is look over at the person of your choice and he'll handle it."

"That's sweet," AJ replied, even though it was really so much more than that. He knew that he would never take them up on the latter part of the offer; so long as people were asking questions about her, he would be the one giving the answers, she deserved that much from him. The guys deserved that much from him. He wouldn't allow his anger to get away from him and jeopardize the group either, he'd done that too many times in the past. Grief and the accompanying rage had stripped AJ of a good portion of his energy for fury. He could still get mad, there was just a calm that accompanied it, a weird sort of slowing of his blood that allowed him to think things through, respond the way he wished he could have when he was younger and stupider.

"I think you had best avoid picking Nicky at all times though. I know you weren't really paying attention to anything but the slowly deflating look on dickhead's face, but I was pretty sure Nick was going to go Neanderthal on us and decorate the room with the guy's entrails." Howie shuddered slightly.

"No Nick. Duly noted." AJ didn't say anything else because Howie knew him well enough to know that the point was moot, AJ wouldn't ask it of any of them. And because AJ had enough respect for Howie to understand that saying those words aloud would strip Howie of a protective mantle he automatically wore as AJ's lover. "I love you," he said instead. His breath caught. "That sounded so different than I remember it sounding."

Howie struggled to sit up and look into AJ's eyes. "You've told me that before. You told Kevin it last week."

"With Kevin, dipshit, it was obviously different." AJ rolled his eyes. "And I hadn’t said that to you yet, not like that, just the words. No accompanying action or explanation, just three tiny syllables."

Howie gripped the closest sofa cushion. "Did it sound okay?"

AJ considered the death-hold Howie had on the blue chenille cushion. "I'm glad it sounded different. It is different. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be the same. Would you have?"

Howie tilted his head from one side to the other. "I don’t know. I mean, I see how much you loved her, day in and day out. It's all I've seen for a year and a half. I can't say as having that would be so horrible."

AJ pried Howie's fingers from the cushion and wove them through his own. "You do have that. Maybe even more, I don't know yet. I want to believe this is forever and that given time it will naturally become something bigger without the two of us even noticing. What you have of me now, though, isn't less than what she had, it's just completely and entirely apart from that. It has to be, if you were tied up in her…nothing about this would be right. That's why it had to take so long in the first place."

Howie stared intently at their fingers, locked tightly against each other. "Thank you for making me wait, I guess."

"I'm sorry it was as long as it was. I didn't know that, I swear."

"No," Howie smiled. There was a touch of sadness in his eyes, but it was remembered sadness. "I know you didn't."

"I wish you had said something."

"I'm glad I didn't." Howie explained, "I love you differently, and more, than anything in this entire universe. I don’t think you could have understood what that meant until now, without all that has lead up to this. And I don't regret her any more than you do. I don't regret her friendship or her talent or all the little and big things she changed inside of you. You grew with her. I don't regret anything when it comes to you."

"I love you," AJ repeated, wanting to grow used to the sound.

"I love you," Howie agreed pointedly.

*

The first single cracked the top ten and stayed on the TRL countdown at varying positions for over a month. AJ was pleasantly surprised by both these occurrences and had a feeling that the rest of the guys were as well. The two albums that had followed 'Black & Blue' and preceded 'Almost Shattered' had done decently enough to maintain their celebrity status but hadn't garnered anywhere near the numbers of their earlier career. The new single was no 'I Want it That Way' in terms of sheer popularity, but it was getting regular airplay on several stations in any given place and people were responding to it well.

AJ stopped worrying as much about album sales and sent their publicist a cake from Howie's favorite bakery for all her hard work. When Kevin suggested that they start making actual tour plans, AJ closed his eyes at the excitement that rushed through him, almost too heavy in his veins. It was nearly the way Howie made him feel, after Howie decided AJ had waited long enough, was paying enough attention. Not quite, but nearly. AJ remembered how he had told reporters that he hadn't been able to wait to return to performing when he was in rehab, and it hadn't exactly been a lie, the logical part of his brain that insisted he knew himself had told him that was what he wanted. The part of his brain that had gotten him both into and out of the predicament in the first place wanted to stay behind the sturdy walls of the clinic, made to withstand monsoons and the emotional vulnerabilities that tried to intrude from the outside all at once.

The guys had known, seen through his posturing and AJ had never been exactly sure who had suggested the extra weeks, the time in the special post-alcoholic limbo that he had thought of as his own half-way house, but it had worked, and AJ had made it into the car that took him away, safe for a little while longer behind tinted windows.

Performing had become a double-edged sword, forged of the exhilaration that came from AJ's actual love of performance and from his fear of what people could see in those moments when he opened himself up, let go. Performing was the only way he could remember to do that by that point, though he was slowly relearning the skill off the stage as well.

The rush that came with the idea of going out on the road again was clean this time. It felt familiar, and AJ thought maybe he was remembering it from back when he was ten and just starting and unaware of how very many hurtful things the world could fling at one rather tiny boy.

This tour was to be small. The ratings on the single indicated that they could go larger than they had originally planned on, not much, but a little. None of the guys really wanted to, though. AJ and Nick had both taken a hands on part in researching larger clubs and smaller arenas and being very picky about where they approached to do shows.

As a group they had decided to completely cut out the dancing on this tour. The last one they had retained a few of their dancers on and even done some dancing themselves, but Nick wanted to sit behind a drum set for most of the tour and Brian wanted to sling a guitar over his shoulder and Kevin was adamant about fitting himself behind a set of ivories. Howie and AJ didn't really feel the need for more motion than casual, unchoreographed movements, didn't necessarily think anything more would fit with the sound and emotive quality of the album.

They reworked jam sessions into certain songs so that Kevin, Brian and Nick could play around on their instruments and made other songs a cappella because they couldn’t resist the chance to show off a bit and weren't too old or too proud to admit it.

AJ looked forward to getting up in the mornings, waking Howie up, eating breakfast on the way to rehearsal. He enjoyed the exhaustion that hummed through his body at the end of the day, when he was too tired to do anything other than pass out after Howie gave him the blowjob of a lifetime, AJ mumbling a promise that he would return the favor in the morning. AJ made good on his promises. Every morning.

One morning, after he had showered and brushed his teeth and didn’t have to feel ashamed about calling his mom, he did. He greeted her, "Hi mommy," and when she asked what was up with him, like a good mom, he told her, "I'm alive, and I know it."

*

AJ and Nick didn't read reviews about themselves or the group. Brian, Kevin and Howie did. This division among the guys was known and accepted. Which meant that AJ was a little taken aback by Howie's casual, "You want me to read this to you?" as his eyes skimmed the words of the LA Times critic.

AJ took a moment to look at Howie as though the older man had grown a second head, this one with tentacles. "Um, hmm, lemme think. That would be a no."

"I think you should let me," Howie insisted.

AJ was about to emphatically restate his position when he stopped to actually listen to what Howie was saying. Howie hadn't hurt AJ yet, hadn't even shown the desire to and AJ thought that perhaps this was as good a time as any to make it clear that he trusted Howie. "Okay, if you really want to."

"I'll skip to the highlights, okay?"

"Seems a little like popping rose-colored lenses in my sunglasses, but all right," AJ shrugged.

"She likes the album. She isn’t raving or anything, but she openly states that she thinks it's our best effort to date and that if things continue in this vein she thinks she could be convinced to be a fan. But that's not why I want to read it to you."

"Okay, okay, read away. Impress me with your literacy," AJ gestured grandly for Howie to go ahead.

Howie put his finger to the page and skimmed down to where he wanted to start. "Okay. 'While the album does not break through any barriers to redefine pop, it validly charts new territory for Backstreet as a group. Their harmonies, until now, sugar-light and infectious, have evolved into something richer, oftentimes with an edge of melancholy. While the album definitely rests on a theme of survival and healing, the sound of the album overall is anything but thematic. Every song on the album was written by one of its members, a first for the band. The songs penned by Carter are often more heavily drum and electric guitar based, whereas Littrell seems determined to bring a bit of bluegrass into Backstreet's corner of the market. Collaborative songs, such as 'Sitting Back' by Dorough and Carter, can end up being plain odd, a mix of traditional Latino balladeering and hair-band style-crooning. Amazingly, the Boys make all of these styles work for themselves, fitting together an album that tells a tale of pain and recovery without condescending to make it seem like these things can be contained in a singular type of sound or one particular chord of harmony.'"

Howie held up a finger, signaling that AJ needed to wait while he scrolled his eyes further down the page. "And this: 'One of the more gutsy decisions made by the Boys is the actual line-up of songs on the album. The first single is one of the very last songs on the play list. The song that they open up with is called 'Underneath.' There is one line of melody, played on the piano. Richardson himself is the one playing for this track. The song was originally written to be performed by a solo artist and a woman, as it was written by McLean's wife, who committed suicide in October of 2006. McLean and Dorough reworked the song together to make room for five-part harmony. While this could have been an exploitive move on the band's part, they manage to make it anything but. The sound is still exquisitely simple and the harmonies are constructed to create an echo that is haunting. If a person can sit through this song and not feel McLean's grief at the loss of his wife, the force of her presence imprinted on this album, that person has seen and been hardened by much more than I.'"

AJ came over and kissed Howie's forehead. "You were right to read it to me."

"One more," Howie insisted. "'I, like most of the known world, had my doubts about this album -- doubts that it would ever be finished, doubts that it would be worth the wait, doubts that it would be anything more than the somewhat tepid pop Backstreet has been guilty of churning out in the past. Maybe all of my doubting allowed me to be more impressed by the album than I otherwise would have been. Even so, I can say nothing more about this album than that it deserves the twenty some dollars necessary for its purchase. This is the Backstreet Boys, indeed pop as a genre, at its most heartfelt, lovely and genuinely musical.'"

"Think they liked the album?" AJ asked, trying to cover for the fact that he felt tears of relief climbing their way out his chest and into his eyes.

"She," Howie corrected him. "Uniko Shigura."

"For real?" AJ didn't read reviews, but Sarah had. Uniko Shigura had trashed Sarah's second album along with Backstreet's fifth one.

"For real." Howie chuckled. "Kevin told me he spent an hour working up to reading it when he heard she had been the one to do the review."

"Poor Kev, that had to be completely anti-climatic."

"Yeah, and I think Kris laughed at him for it too," Howie added, trying to sound sympathetic. He ended up leaning into the table and laughing instead. AJ stayed upright laughing with both amusement and sheer release of emotions for a few seconds before sliding down to his knees, pressing his face into Howie's side, breathing just enough to inhale the scent of Howie's happiness. It smelled suspiciously familiar and completely unknown all at once, caught up in AJ's own as much as it was.

*

It was no accident that there was nearly a week long break from the tour in no other place than Lexington, Kentucky around the day of Orlando's first birthday. Brian had Leighanne's parents flown in, Kristin caught up to them with the twins and they threw a grand party with a Sesame Street theme. AJ even did a little bit of puppeteering, feeling that it was easier to do so than to argue the fact that really, none of the kids had enough of a grasp on coherency to understand what was going on. Sarah seemed thrilled by the fluffy feel of Oscar when she tried to rip his head off of AJ's hand, so AJ didn't feel too put out.

Each of the kids had developed their own way of communicating. Sarah mostly screamed out sounds that sounded somewhat similar to what she was asking for or trying to tell the person to whom she was 'speaking.' Orlando did a lot of pointing that was generally surprisingly on target. Carolina had about six one-syllable words down that she rearranged in different patterns for any given situation.

AJ sent Denise plane tickets and asked her to come. It didn't take a lot of convincing because Backstreet babies were communal property as far as claiming grandparent status went and Denise wasn't one to pass up her right to the title. Paula and Hoke came out as well, not wanting to be left out.

BJ and Leslie drove down from New York where they were rooming together in an apartment Nick had picked up for himself during one of his solo stints. He had told Howie it was for all the times he had to be up there and do MTV face time, but the rest of the guys all privately agreed that it was just Nick's way of getting BJ to actually do what she had been talking about in moving up there, away from Jane. Nick had also planted the suggestion that Leslie should follow her.

Aaron couldn't get away, but Angel came on her own. She had been making herself disengage from Aaron's side more and more, working toward a time when she felt she could go off on her own and handle college. Nick was working on convincing her to move in with Leslie and BJ and go to one of the city colleges.

Ann and Jackie had baked three cakes, because it wasn't feasible for everyone to get together again in a month for the twins's birthday, so they all agreed that the girls should get to share in Orlando's limelight. AJ and Kevin helped feed Sarah while Howie assisted Kristin with Carolina, and Nick pretty much just made fun of the mess Orlando was successfully making of Brian.

It took awhile to get the babies and their surroundings clean after that, but with the help of everyone the aim was achieved. Howie flipped through his CDs and put on some soft flamenco. He stole Carolina from Kristin, and danced with her, making small sounds of agreement to her delighted screeches of "ma!" and "toy!" which Howie took to mean she was enjoying herself.

AJ bounced Sarah around and kept up a running monologue that was mostly made up of him poking fun at the other guys. She grabbed onto his nose and didn't let go. AJ just kept on talking.

At some point, Kevin came up behind AJ, wrapping his arms around the younger man so that Kevin was holding both his friend and his daughter. AJ stopped talking.

Brian was dancing with his wife, leading her slowly around the room, whispering in her ear. She smiled minutely at whatever he was saying, leaning her head down on his shoulder as they kept twirling.

Nick stood in the corner, safeguarding Orlando, holding him so that he could watch his parents glide around together. BJ was standing next to him and he leaned over, knocking his hip into hers gently. She knocked back every bit as gently, looking over at him with a look that crossed exasperation and sheer idol worship. Nick was still watching Brian, a similar expression on his face.

Carolina was winding down in Howie's arms, her words less insistent. AJ twisted in Kevin's arms. "Take my girl, wouldja?"

Kevin raised his eyebrows, "Your girl?" He took Sarah, shaking his head.

AJ made his way to where Howie had slowed down himself, swaying back and forth. AJ put his hand on the shoulder that Carolina was resting on, nearly asleep, he took Howie's free hand in his other one. Howie started a slow salsa. AJ stepped on Howie's foot the second time, smiling apologetically. Howie just started over again, his steps careful, soft so as not to wake Carolina up, and slow so as to keep in time with AJ.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile